In the moment, the sting was real.

The Rocky River boys lacrosse team, in the midst of a convincing run through the Division II state tournament, had its season ended on the rain-soaked turf of Strongsville High School’s Pat Catan Stadium on June 2. In a final four matchup, Chagrin Falls came out with a 12-5 victory.

The Pirates were denied the chance to play in their first state championship game since 2013. But difficult losses, like the rain clouds hovering over Strongsville that night, eventually fade, and what’s left for the team will be the memories of bluer skies and big wins.

“There’s just a lot of stuff that, two weeks from now, we’re going to look back really fondly on,” said Pirates coach Bobby Perez. “We’re sad now, but we’ll be thankful and happy later.”

Perez and his staff, consisting of Michael Poe, Mason Wilhelmy, Tom Robenalt II and Jack Gerlack, had previously walked a mile in the players’ shoes. The entirety of the staff are Pirates lacrosse alums, having last suited up for the Division II state runner-up teams in 2012 and ‘13, before the Ohio High School Athletic Association first began sanctioning the annual boys and girls state tournaments.

In the locker room after the loss to the Tigers (15-7), the coaches spoke from experience.

“The message after, when you look around the room, is that this next hour-and-a-half is probably going to be the last time this entire group – coaching staff, players, alumni – is going to be together,” Perez said. “You have to cherish the time and not take any moment for granted. We’ll talk about the memories in a week or two, but for now, just enjoy this time with your teammates.”

It was the final game for the team’s 12-man senior class, though things were looking up after the first 12 minutes of regulation.

Trailing 1-0 early in the first quarter, the Pirates responded with three straight goals to take the lead. Ryan Hildebrand’s shot off a Nathan Robertson assist tied the score with 6:55 on the clock, then Robertson’s goal with 3:51 left put the Pirates ahead. In a spectacular end-to-end play with 2:23 remaining, junior defender Robbie Lang forced a turnover in the Tigers’ offensive zone, sprinted the length of the field and finished with a shot past Tigers goalie Wesley Kaas for a two-goal advantage.

The Pirates were getting stops on the defensive end and generating shots on goal into the second quarter, protecting their lead. Then the Tigers, who won the Division II state title in 2019, kicked into high gear and took over the game.

Fritz Clark, Owen Shaw and Cam Croasdaile combined to score four goals in a five-minute stretch and the Tigers took a 5-3 lead into halftime. Michael Maschke scored the only goal of the third, putting the Pirates (16-4) in a 6-3 hole they were unable to climb out of.

The key was transition. After the slow start, the Tigers caused 13 Pirate turnovers and were able to generate more offense as a result. They narrowly won the battle of on-target shots, 20-17.

“They executed,” Perez said of the Tigers. “They had a ton of transition goals early and it got them the lead, but they didn’t do anything we didn’t expect. They killed us in transition. Hats off to them. They’re well-coached and disciplined and they have great players. We went away from what went well in the first quarter pretty quickly, and when things got tough, we started doing undisciplined stuff.”

Maschke and Clark each struck two more times in the fourth to up the margin to 10-4 with 6:11 left. Goals by John Ranieri and Max Crandall in the final three minutes made the result all but certain: the Tigers were headed back to the state championship game for the third time in four seasons.

“We needed to get back to playing Chagrin lacrosse (after the first quarter),” Tigers coach Paul Corto said. “We came out a little slow, and we knew we were going to take a few punches from (the Pirates). We knew if we got into a rhythm and could just possess the ball, we knew we could break the game open...We got into a rhythm, started getting downhill and that was nice to see.”

Clark led all scorers with four goals, followed by Maschke’s hat trick. Kaas’ quick reflexes in goal gave the Pirates fits at times, and he finished with 13 saves. Wesley Bennett and Hayden Weaver scored in the fourth to provide the balance of Pirates scoring, and goalie Reece Rochester made nine saves.

The Pirates’ road ended in Strongsville, but the 2021 season was a memorable one. Among their 16 wins was a 9-8 victory over Columbus St. Francis DeSales in double overtime on April 17, a 7-5 win over Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit on “Senior Night” on April 29, and the inaugural Northern Ohio Lacrosse League championship, secured with a 12-7 win over Brunswick on May 8. They went 9-0 in league play.

They earned the No. 1 seed in the Region 5 bracket, which allowed them to play four tournament games on their home field. They won them all, clinching the regional title with a 6-4 win over Toledo St. Francis DeSales on May 27. The state semifinal was the team’s first since the OHSAA’s adoption of the sport in 2017.

“At the end of the day, I can’t say enough good things about our senior class,” Perez said. “From the beginning of the season, we’ve come a really long way. This is the first time we’ve been at this stage since 2013, when the coaching staff was on the team, so there’s nothing to hang your head about. It stings now, but we’ve got a lifetime of memories with this group.”

Contact this reporter at sports@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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