NORTH CANTON The defense hasn’t rested and for the Hoover Vikings, that means a top seed in the first OHSAA-sponsored boys lacrosse state tournament.
The Vikings, who defeated Hudson last week to lock up the top seed in Division I, Region 2, have ridden a strong defense that has limited more than half of their opponents to seven goals or fewer and as the postseason begins, dreams of a deep run in the tournament hinge largely on the unit’s continued success.
“For starters, our goalie, Cam Logan has been playing great in goal all season. Having a strong goalie can help erase any mistakes,” head coach Matt Gregory said. “The second is the leadership of senior captain Reed Davis. Our defense is inexperienced (and) Reed is a coach on the field and helps direct traffic.”
Despite its inexperience, the defense has been consistent over the course of the season and with a schedule that includes several of the top teams Hoover could face in the tournament, it has been tested regularly. The offense has done its part due largely to a balanced attack the includes eight double-figure scorers, with the tandem of Whit Stopak and Matt Chufar leading the way.
Combined, the duo have tallied 79 goals and 76 assists, with Stopak’s 91 points leading the team.
There have been nights when the offense couldn’t find its rhythm and according to Gregory, being more consistent on that end of the field will be big in the tournament
“The offense is still a work in progress and I do not think we are playing at our full potential. However, we are getting better each week,” Gregory said. “For us to make a deep postseason run, we need to continue to improve on our team concepts. Whit Stopak and Matt Chufar are having a great year and one of the state’s best duos. These two are engine that drives the offense.”
The complementary pieces for that engine include Zach Owens (26 goals, 16 assists) Sam Esterle (19 goals), Kyle Stroia (19 goals) and Davis (18 goals).
As a group, the Vikings have focused on improving their play in face-offs, with Gregory noting that it’s the area of the game where there has been the most growth over the course of the season. Senior J.D. Wagler has been among those performing well in face-offs, winning 20 of 26 in the Hudson game and in the process, allowing Hoover to control the pace of play against an experienced, talented opponent.
Hudson lurks in the bottom half of the bracket for the tournament, meaning both sides would have to win three games to set up a rematch in the regional final. A potential second matchup with arch rival Jackson is likewise a ways off, as the Vikings and Polar Bears would each have to win two games to face each other in the postseason for the second straight year.
Regardless of the opponent, Hoover knows that with the postseason comes an added level of intensity and physicality. Teams know that their season is on the line every time they step onto the field and with the elevated stakes, each hit, face-off and battle for a loose ball ramps up in terms of magnitude.
Even though the season began with some new faces in key roles and those players have gone through the typical learning curve and all its growing pains over the course of the season, Gregory believes that the Vikings are ready for the heat of the tournament crucible and will be able to battle anyone in the bracket without backing down.
“This team isn’t the deepest (bench) we have had, but they are mentally and physically tough,” Gregory said. “This is evident in our ground ball play. We routinely win the ground ball game. Success comes from tenacity and having a never-give-up attitude.”
That attitude will definitely be put to the test in a region that includes Jackson, Lakewood St. Edward, Hudson, St. Ignatius and others, but a defense that is locked in and an offense growing as it goes have Hoover ready for what lies ahead this postseason.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB