Goalkeeper Hayden McWilliams was one of two freshmen starting on a senior-dominated Indian River High School lacrosse squad when he emerged as the team’s emotionally-charged leader.
As the only other freshman on that team, and standing next to him in the halftime huddle, George Martin remembers the moment well.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Martin. “We’re two freshmen surrounded by that senior group that had been playing together for a long time, and it was a close game. Hayden steps right into the middle of the dogpile and says, ‘Alright, guys — this is what we gotta do. We gotta take the ball, and we gotta put it in the back of their net.’ It’s something about the way he delivers his speeches that gets everyone fired up. He’s really got a way with words.”
It was a simple and obvious strategy, sure. But the Occam’s razor of a speech would prove effective as the Indians went on to run away with the game in the second half, establishing McWilliams as both the voice and heart of the team throughout the rest of his career.
Now seniors themselves, McWilliams and Martin are ready to lead the Indians to historical heights as they embark on their final campaign in green-and-gold.
“These guys have the expectation that they’re not only going for the South, but they’re going for the Henlopen Conference,” said second-year assistant coach Dave Spencer. “We have the talent. We have the ability across the board to really make some noise this year.”
“We set the expectations high and we motivate each other to achieve them. We push each other every day in practice,” added senior attackman Gianni Gottschalk. “I feel the team chemistry is far above where we were last year.”
Finishing 9-6 in 2016, the Indians fell just short of clinching the school’s first-ever Henlopen South championship and ticket to the Henlopen Conference championship but did manage to earn a first-round bid to the DIAA state tournament for the second time in school history.
While they graduated All-Conference selections including attackman Josh Lucido and defensemen Erik Gulbronson and Sam Wood from that squad, 14 seniors will headline this year’s roster, in addition to several key newcomers coming up through the developing program and benefitting from a regimented off-season.
“The dedication and the work out-of-season — that’s the difference,” said fifth-year head coach Jim Dietsch of captains including McWilliams, Martin, Gottschalk and senior Griffin McCormick organizing off-season workouts and indoor leagues. “We’re in the best shape we’ve ever been in since I’ve been here. These guys know you’ve got to work hard to be good, and they very work hard.”
“Compared to where we were last year, we’re lightyears ahead,” added Spencer. “By the end of the season last year, the kids realized how good that they can be. We feel like last year was the first half of our season, this is our second half.”
Leading the offense as a midfielder for a fourth straight year will be Martin, who’s coming off a First-Team All-Conference selection in 2016. Joining “G-Mart” on the first line will again be senior Max Stong and senior Andrew White, who’s made significant strides and established himself as an impact player since first picking up a stick as a junior.
At the face-off “X” will again be senior Sam Nitz, who earned his first All-Conference mention as a face-off specialist last season.
Newcomers including soccer-standouts Wilbert Gomez and Johan Cordoba will make up the team’s second-line midfield unit, along with senior Jared Arlett, who is expected to see some face-off action after finally joining the lacrosse movement at IR after much success on the football field and wrestling mats.
“We’ve been trying to get Jared out here for a long time,” said Martin of the team’s new profusion of athletic talent. “Wilberth and Johan are both incredibly athletic. Those are the types of guys that we’ve been missing in this program.”
“The big thing is these guys are friends off the field, too. The chemistry is there,” added Spencer. “They’re gonna look for each other, and they’re gonna know where they’re gonna be.”
Rounding out the arsenal with sophomore returner Jack Martin and junior Dylan Sopko making the jump from J.V., the reinforced midfield unit will be looking to get the ball down to returning attackmen including Gottschalk and Cole “The Machete” Josetti, an All-Conference selection last season as a sophomore. Junior attackmen Wyatt Kovatch also returns to the team, expected to play a bigger part in the offense after seeing considerable minutes in both his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
Also making the jump from J.V. will be junior attackman Garrett Bomhardt, coming off a productive pre-season, and senior attackman Jonathan Coleman in his first year with the team.
With the team having graduated two All-Conference defensemen and starter Kyle Yerkes, McCormick is the team’s sole defensive starter returning from last season. But with senior Mike Cedano and sophomore Patrick Spencer returning to fill the graduates’ shoes, and senior midfielder Joey Ciriello converting to long-pole midfield to take Gulbronson’s spot, the defense is looking primed to anchor the squad behind what they consider to be one of the best goalkeepers in the state.
“The fact that we have a defense that can work around one of the best goalies in the state — we’re really looking strong on that end,” said Martin. “It’s one of the stronger defenses that we’ve had here. We’ve got the athletes, and now we’ve got to put it all together.”
“Hayden’s the best goalkeeper any defender could ask for,” said McCormick. “He’s very supportive, and he’s our emotional leader. Our defensive goal is to communicate and to do the little things right.”
The fourth-year starter is coming off an All-Conference selection of his own in 2016, ready to help lead and develop the defensive unit, which also includes seniors Jordan Mears and Jarrett Lowrance, in addition to freshman Ethan Forrey.
“We’re gonna be putting up a lot of points, so the job of the defense is going to be holding other teams to less points than our offense can score,” added McWilliams, in one of his famous strategy simplifications.
The coaching duo of Dietsch and Spencer is also back for the second straight year, with Dietsch now in his fifth year with a program he aims to continue building from the ground up.
Both coaches bring an extensive lacrosse résumé to the table: Dietsch, as a two-time national champion as an assistant coach for the University of Maryland in 1973 and 1975, and Spencer a former collegiate player for Towson University and professional for the Baltimore Thunder, where he played along-side lacrosse legends including Paul and Gary Gait.
“The level of respect for both of these guys is higher than any other team I’ve ever played on,” said Gottschalk.
“There’s not enough that we can say about the honor it is to be surrounded by these two coaches,” added McWilliams. “They know more about lacrosse than I can ever hope to know. We still joke and mess around and have fun, but we obviously know we’re here to work and here to learn. When you look around the state, you don’t see two coaches coming in with more experience.”
After a successful pre-season campaign, the Indians will get ready to make their run for the history books this Saturday, March 25, at home against Red Lion at 2 p.m. They’ll then set their sights on South rival Milford in a home game on Wednesday, March 29, at 5:30 p.m.
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back from last year that want to experience that playoff feeling and want to do what we have to to get back there,” said Martin heading into the start of the season. “There’s a new hunger that all these guys are bringing to the sport, which is great. It’s what we needed.”