Warrior lacrosse program hopes to keep progressing in playoffs
by Aaron Garcia
With the right players, pretty much any team in any sport can have a successful season. But creating a successful program, well, that takes some time, which is a fact Mark Burnam was well aware of when he was hired as Weddington High’s boys lacrosse coach four years ago.
“I told (the school’s administration) when I came here that it takes about three to four years to implement your program,” said Burnam.
In many sports around the area, the deferred window for success may have sounded like a cop-out, but not with lacrosse. It would’ve been different if there was a pre-established lacrosse culture in the area at the time, but there simply wasn’t. In many ways, Burnam’s hiring marked the beginning of what has become a grass-roots effort in Union County to establish a foot hold for lacrosse, and this year, it’s clearly paying off.
On May 6, the Warriors travel to Charlotte’s Providence High to face the Panthers in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs. It’s a major step forward for the Warriors, an opportunity that has presented itself capitalizing on the chances they’ve already been given; The Warriors began the postseason with a 13-12 win over the state’s top-ranked team, Lake Norman High, on April 29.
But rather than leave any doubt about its major upset over Lake Norman possibly being a fluke, Weddington dismantled its second-round opponent – Western Alamance – 23-4 on May 3. The win improved the Warriors’ record to 11-4 on the season. Now, Weddington is ranked No. 6 in the state, according to Maxpreps.com; and No. 12, according to laxpower.com.
But despite the lack of consensus regarding their ranking, it’s become pretty clear this season that the Warriors are becoming a program to be reckoned with.
It’s not like the team is succeeding out of nowhere. Last season the Warrriors finished 8-8 and narrowly missed the playoffs due to some key losses to some of Charlotte’s powerful private-school programs, which counted against their final record and kept them home during the postseason.
“Not having a chance for those seniors last year to go to the championship, or even get to the playoffs to get that chance, that kind of drove us all year,” said Burnam. As a result, the Warriors’ season never really ended. Burnam said a strong core of Weddington players stayed together and played during the summer and the fall and began workouts during the winter in order to take the next step as a team.
“I kept reminding the guys that we’d probably have a strong team (this spring),” said the coach. “We went at it this year with less games, more practice and a belief that if we do what we’re told and buy into the system, we have a chance at this thing.”
And the chance to show the rest of the state that this year’s Weddington team isn’t the same squad that sat home for last year’s postseason has been a motivator, said senior attacker Brad Burnam, the team’s leading scorer.
“We’re trying to prove a point that we belong here,” he said. “We just tried to forget about last year because we were 8-8. We just wanted to prove everybody wrong.”
The Warriors’ calling card so far has been an explosive offense, led by the duo of Brad Burnam and junior Connor Kennedy. Burnam, according to maxpreps.com, currently leads the nation at 7.5 points per game. On the year he’s scored 62 goals and recorded 51 assists for an astronomical 113 points. Kennedy isn’t far behind with 84 points (52 goals, 32 assists).
Connor, a three-year starter, said the familiarity between himself and Brad Burnam has accounted for much of the success.
“I love playing with (Burnam),” said Kennedy. “He sets up the offense. We have a good connection because we’ve been playing together for three years now and we know each other like the back of our hands.”
Former goalie Nick Nedvesky has chipped in 23 points at attack while R.J. Nappi has tallied 19.
“When you’ve got one kid on the team that’s a dominant figure with Brad being a senior and all, he’s getting shut off a lot,” the elder Burnam said. “With Connor, they’re a one-two punch, you know? (As an opposing defense), you’re going to suffer somewhere.”
But it hasn’t just been the four attackers getting in on the fun. Five other Warriors have totaled 15 or more points this season, including Cameron Roten (15), Justin Phifer (18), Collin Whetstone (15), Jordan Butz (18) and Stephen Wierzbicki (26). In all, the Warriors are outscoring their opponents 233-105.
“That’s where we hurt them because we’re so deep,” the coach noted. “We’ve got power at all the spots.”
Given the buildup, the Warriors started the season strong and even got a confidence-building win over Providence, 22-15 on March 26. But the team was forced to come back down to Earth when it fell to Charlotte Catholic in the Conference 12 championship, 14-13 on April 23.
But that may not have been such a bad thing, said the coach.
“If we had won that game, maybe we wouldn’t have been as hungry as we were during the Lake Norman game,” Burnam reasoned. “That’s how I look at it: It’s something that helped build team character. That loss brought the team together instead of separating them.”
“It woke us up and made us realize we’re not unbeatable and we still have to play every game with the same intensity,” added the younger Burnam.
Win or lose against Providence, said the coach, this season should go a long way in progressing the sport of lacrosse in Union County. With more and more kids joining the lacrosse ranks within the county’s various youth programs, Mark Burnam hopes that more prospective high school lacrosse players will decide to pursue their careers in Union County rather that migrate to one of Charlotte’s more-established programs.
“You want to keep those kids in your backyard,” Burnam said.
And there’s no better way to do that than with a state title, which is a goal the coach thinks is more than reasonable this year.
“If we can continue to play well, I think we have a very good shot,” Burnam noted. “It was just a matter of them believing in the system and now it’s rolling. I don’t really see us stopping. I tell our kids that if we don’t beat ourselves, I don’t think there’s a strong chance that they’d lose a game. That’s my belief, anyways.
“Hopefully it comes true.”