This spring’s weather has been a pretty accurate barometer of the outlook of the Eagan boys’ lacrosse team.
One month ago the Wildcats endured a season-opening 15-8 loss to top-ranked Chanhassen. That game was the first time the team got to play together outdoors after having three scrimmages and its season opener canceled because of the mid-April snowstorm. The loss to the Storm wasn’t enough to cause much concern, but the lack of preparation made the immediate future a bit more cloudy for the defending state champions as they worked to replace the 12 contributing seniors who graduated last spring.
“Those three scrimmages would have prepared us very well,” senior goaltender Jack Courington said. “Just like a bunch of programs, we were in the gym every day. That made it a tough start. I feel like that’s why we’re coming into our stride now.”
The Wildcats are 5-0 since the start of May and have won six of their past seven overall, with the only loss coming by a single goal on the road against third-ranked Benilde-St. Margaret’s. They climbed to No. 4 in the state rankings after a one-goal victory over Prior Lake on May 7.
“It’s still a trial process for our guys. We’re still tinkering now,” longtime Eagan coach Bob Felter said. “My best ability is moving guys around and putting them in the right place, and that’s helped us start playing better from game to game.”
That tinkering has allowed the Wildcats to continue to pile up goals using their trademark run-and-gun offensive philosophy. During their recent winning streak they scored 26 goals against Shakopee and 23 in a shutout of Farmington.
“We’ve been doing it since I got here, no matter what the team looks like,” Felter said. “We try to pound it into the kids’ heads that possession is important, and that once you lose the ball you have to get it back, and if there’s an opportunity to score, you take it. Unlike other sports, you can win the faceoff, score, win the faceoff and keep it again.”
During last year’s title run the Wildcats won 70 percent of their faceoffs, which resulted in an abundance of scoring chances. They’re at about 60 percent so far this season, but the offense has remained effective. Senior attacker Isaac Peifer has put up a team-high 45 points (21 goals, 24 assists). He’s joined up front by Damien Schultz (14 points) and Andrew Chvatal (10 goals).
“[Peifer] has a sneaky shot and is good with both hands. He’s very slick,” Felter said. “We hope the other team puts their best guys on him so we can move the ball around to the other seven guys who can score.”
Some of that offense comes from the midfielder position, where senior captains Cole Powell (22 points) and Joey Mills (16 points) have free reign to play all over the field. Felter said the duo is “tough as nails” and said he “wouldn’t trade either one of them.”
Said Mills, “We just go for everything and don’t really shy away from any part of the game. Some programs have offensive or defensive midfielders, but we were just brought up to go both ways, work hard and play for everything.”
Two more experienced senior captains man the back-end of the Eagan lineup. Ben Vecellio leads the defense and Courington is back in net for his fourth season as the Wildcats’ goaltender. Courington was an all-state selection last season and won all-tournament team honors for his efforts during last year’s title run. He’s allowing just 6.4 goals per game this season.
“Jack is a great athlete. He can play anywhere on the field,” Felter said. “He’s very vocal with the defense, telling them where to go. He’s very athletic and he’s a great outlet passer.”
Courington has enjoyed the process of working with his teammates to establish the identity of this year’s team while at the same time trying to defend the state title.
“It starts with our mentality and the way we approach the game. We’re just a fun group of guys and we try to go out there and be the best. That kind of carries over from year to year,” he said. “We really have to bring our ‘A’ game no matter what opponent we play. Chanhassen and Benilde gave us their best and we weren’t prepared. I think later in the season, there might be a different outcome.”