When a road leading to the state Final Four got bumpy, Libertyville navigated it with a Blazer.
Despite losing two-time all-American Kevin Verkler and fellow starting defender Graham Crawford due to late-season injuries, the Wildcats' boys lacrosse team trucked within a victory of the Class-A state championship game.
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After beating Glenbrook North to earn its Final Four berth, Libertyville saw its season end last Thursday with an 11-4 loss to eventual state champion Loyola.
Wildcats junior goalie Cole Blazer showed throughout the season why he along with teammates Verkler and A.J. Schmidt netted All-America honors.
The trio led Libertyville to a 16-6 record (15-5 in state) and its first Final Four berth since 2004, when the Wildcats finished second.
"I think all of the injuries we had on defense just showed how important Cole was," seventh-year Wildcats head coach Brady Sullivan said. "He saw a lot of really tough, in-close shots this year, more than any of our goalies have in past seasons that I've been there. He really stepped up to the challenge of trying to keep together a defense that had guys in and out of the lineup."
Verkler, who will play on scholarship at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland, missed the last eight games of the regular season with a torn labrum in his hip, Sullivan said. Fellow senior Crawford, who was named honorable mention all-conference, fractured his kneecap against Loyola in the penultimate game of the regular season.
The injuries meant Libertyville entered the state tournament down two of its three starting defenders.
"I think it speaks highly of the reserves on our team," said Sullivan, a 1998 graduate of Libertyville who played both lacrosse and football for the Wildcats. "They work hard every day at practice. They showed that they were ready for playoff minutes."
Ethan Miller, a 6-foot-4 junior starting long stick middie, moved to in-close defense and made the transition seamlessly.
"In the end, I kind of felt like Ethan should have been a down-low and in-close defender all along," Sullivan said.
Junior Scott Metzger replaced Miller at long stick middie.
"Every game he improved," Sullivan said of Metzger. "He really came a long way."
Nick Tomasetti, a senior who had been a reserve most of the season, was another Wildcat who took advantage of playing more minutes, Sullivan said. Throughout the Wildcats' playoff run, they had only one long pole player, Eric Harper, who was starting at the position at the beginning of the season.
Up front, senior Nick Ward, a second team all-state attackman, and Schmidt, who will play next season at Division III power St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, led the offense all season. Ward was Libertyville's leading scorer. He had all 3 of the Wildcats' goals in the opening quarter against Loyola, which clung to a 4-3 lead. Senior Luke Stelzner also had a big season up front.
Ward and Nick Bagatti each had 2 goals in the playoff win over Glenbrook North. Harper and Miller wielded active sticks to lead a swarming defense, while Blazer stepped up with 26 saves to keep the Spartans to 4 goals.
"We definitely tested our depth at defense," Sullivan said. "We had so many guys hurt, but those guys who stepped in really did a nice job. We held the (No.) 3 seed to 4 goals missing all those guys. So it's hard to get too upset."