Gonzaga lacrosse starts slow with eye on title game

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Gonzaga coach Casey O'Neill has led the team to a 4-4 record so far this spring. Brian Kapur/Current file photo

Since 2010, Gonzaga’s lacrosse team has run roughshod over both local and national competition while capturing seven straight Washington Catholic Athletic Conference crowns and establishing itself as one of the best teams in the country.

But after graduating 17 players from last year’s title team, the Eagles have found themselves in an unfamiliar situation — a .500 record at 4-4 after eight games. A closer look at the Eagles’ slate, though, reveals a schedule loaded with nationally ranked teams including Bullis, Boys Latin (Maryland) and Culver (Indiana).

“We are a good team and we can play. We are taking these losses to some of the best teams in the country. Other than Boys Latin, every team that we lost to we have beaten consistently,” said Gonzaga coach Casey O’Neill. “Our guys have to understand that those teams spend 364 days out of the year wanting to beat Gonzaga.”

“They are steady-eddy guys and giving you everything every day,” said O’Neill.

The tough out-of-conference slate keeps the Eagles focused on their goal of becoming battle-tested for WCAC action.

“That’s the point,” said O’Neill. “We want to play with a different energy and grit in our conference because we know how good the rest of the league is becoming. We’re excited — 4-4, whatever, we are playing really good lacrosse right now.”

And despite losing those 17 players, the cupboard is hardly bare this season. The Eagles have 12 players committed to play at the college level, with at least two more on the radar of recruiters.

“We had a great offseason. We prepared well,” O’Neill said. “I wouldn’t change anything we have done since day one. We have to play with an energy and urgency and a fire that has to be replicated day in and day out. They get that.”

Gonzaga has relied on its captains — senior midfielders Brian Townsend and Nick Yano, senior attacker Brendan Alt, senior defender Will Rock and junior attacker Jack Myers — to lead the way.

“They are steady-eddy guys and giving you everything every day,” said O’Neill.

The coach said Rock in particular gives the team a boost because “he plays with electricity and fun style.” O’Neill also pointed to Myers, who he believes “is as good as any attack man in the country at any level. He plays with a lot of passion and pride.”

Meanwhile, the team’s defense has been anchored by senior goalie Connar Mulcahy, who waited three years to earn the starting role.

“He has been great,” the coach said. “He’s a senior that backed up a three-year starter. You root for those guys that have been there. It’s his turn, it’s his chance. He has made a lot of saves.“

For a young team with a sprinkling of leadership, avoiding distractions is key for improving on the field.

“We’re really forming this identity of blocking out the noise — Twitter, blogs, rankings, commitments,” said O’Neill. “We have really worked to develop an identity to block it out. Everybody wants to knock off Gonzaga; why are we not undefeated? Why is the offense or defense struggling? No other noise matters other than within our locker room and what we’re doing on the field. It’s a beautiful thing to watch us transform into that.”

The Eagles’ coach believes his team hit a turning point after an overtime loss to Boys Latin on Friday.

“I can see it right now in the last five days,” the coach said. “From our gut-wrenching loss to BL and then our win the next day [over Loyola Academy]. They get that they have to play with that gritty street-fight style.”

The Eagles are hitting their stride just in time for a critical week against their biggest rivals — Georgetown Prep (after The Current went to press on Tuesday) and DeMatha on Friday.

“This is a monster week,” O’Neill said. “You have an old-school rivalry. For years we were the underdog with Georgetown Prep. DeMatha, they dominated our league for 10 or 12 years. … We have been tested. We’ve been knocked down. We’ve been beaten. But we are starting to see what it takes to play, and it couldn’t come at a better time.”

As the Eagles head into this pivotal week, they’re keeping up hopes of capturing an eighth straight WCAC championship in May.

“We have hit our stride and said enough is enough,” said O’Neill. “The youthful faithfulness where the guys say, ‘Tell us what to do and we will do it.’ This is the type of team that can do it again.”