Even now, two years into his career at St. Stephen’s/St.Agnes, sophomore David Murray finds it hard to believe that matchups like last Friday’s boys’ lacrosse game between his Saints and Alexandria neighbor Episcopal have such weird ramifications.
SSSAS and the Maroon came into the rivalry game as the fourth and sixth-place squads in the six-team Interstate Athletic Conference (IAC), meaning the winner still had no shot at capturing any sort of division title.
But take a look at the Virginia Independent School Athletic Association (VISAA) state rankings, they’ve also got SSSAS and Episcopal tabbed as the fourth- and sixth-best teams. That’s what happens when the conference one plays in happens to be the toughest in the entire metropolitan area, with two teams ranked amongst the nation’s best (Landon and Georgetown Prep) and another ranked in the region’s top-25 (St. Alban’s), according to laxpower.com.
“It’s pretty ridiculous,” said Murray. “The IAC is just such a good league. It’s kind of crazy that even though we’re at the top of the state, we’re in the bottom of the league.”
<b>THAT MEANS</b> matchups like last Friday simply take on an even higher intensity. The ensuing 6-3 Saints victory gave SSSAS just its second conference win of the season, while Episcopal remained winless within the IAC, again, despite being the No. 6 private school team in the entire state.
The victory gave the Saints the No. 4 seed in the IAC tournament and a home game with Bullis in the first round, while Episcopal will take on St. Alban’s. Both games are scheduled to take place Wednesday, after the Gazette Packet’s deadline.
And if the postseason comes anywhere close to replicating the ferocity and skill the IAC has had on display during the regular season, it promises to be a treat.
Last Friday was no different with St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes taking a 4-0 lead early in the fourth quarter only to watch it all but vanish when Episcopal scored three goals in less than a minute. After a Saints timeout, though, senior Alex Clay put SSSAS (12-5 overall, 2-3 IAC) on his back, scoring a goal and assisting on another for Murray to give his team a 6-3 win.
For the game, Murray had two goals and an assist, while fellow sophomore David Solomon chipped in two goals of his own, including a beautiful behind-the-back, around-the-shoulder score that was worthy of a Sportscenter highlight. Episcopal (8-9 overall) was led by senior goalie David Block, who had 21 saves to keep the Maroon close throughout. “He was unbelievable today,” said coach Scott Conklin.
But it was the unbridled intensity, big hits, and skill not seen in the public school ranks around Northern Virginia that had the crowd in attendance wanting more.
“Every time you come out against an IAC team, you’re gonna have to play you’re ‘A’ game otherwise you’re gonna lose,” said Clay.
“It’s just a much higher level,” added Murray. Even the state is a little lower. In the IAC everyone’s hitting a little harder, everything moves a little faster.”
<b>THE CHALLENGE</b> is daunting, but Saints coach Andy Taibl likes knowing that his team is facing some of the best competition in the country. A big problem for both SSSAS and Episcopal is that with programs like Georgetown Prep and Landon, which consistently send multiple athletes to some of the best college lacrosse programs in the country, sometimes the biggest challenge is realizing that there’s more to lacrosse than the name on the other team’s jersey.
Still, neither the Saints nor the Maroon were able to beat Prep or Landon this season, although SSSAS barely lost to the latter, being defeated by a one-goal margin. A Saints’ win over Bullis Wednesday would set up a rematch in the IAC semifinals.
“It’s hard,” said Conklin. “We could be the sixth-best team in the area and still end up 0-5 in the conference. It’s just a fact of life.”
“Sometimes it’s humbling and it’s unfortunate that you can’t do a little bit better, but it makes you play your best,” said Taibl. “I love it and I think our boys love it, too.”