Murph's Turf: Nothing routine about Wilton's 22nd state title
After all the state championships and the reputation as Connecticut’s most storied boys lacrosse program, Wilton would seem to have run out of ways to surprise anyone by winning yet another title.
Then came this season.
The Warriors started by losing four of their first five games, not reaching the .500 mark until their 12th game, and finishing with an 8-8 record. The mediocrity left observers unanimous in their opinion: This was a very average Wilton team.
A very average team that just won the 22nd state championship in program history last Saturday.
“We might not have had the best players, but in the end we had the best team,” said Wilton head coach John Wiseman, a former All-American himself at the school who got his second state title in three seasons when the Warriors controlled Joel Barlow, 9-4, in the Class M finals in Norwalk.
Barlow entered the game with just one loss and ranked second in the Class M field. Wilton was seeded 17th and had nine losses: Eight in the regular season and a 9-6 setback to Darien in the conference quarterfinals.
That loss left the Warriors in an odd position, entering a state tournament with a sub-.500 record at 8-9. Surely there was little chance of Wilton adding to its trophy case. The team would have no home games, some long bus rides, and what would seem to be zero momentum.
Wiseman, though, said the team did find motivation.
“I think it was the combination of a few things,” he said. “The seniors began to realize that their days were short and that pulled them together and galvanized them.
“Also, being the 17th seed and having to start states with a play-in (qualifying round) game ... they took that as a chip on their shoulder,” added Wiseman. “They were more focused, more intense, from what me and the other coaches had seen during the regular season.”
“During the play-in game (a 16-7 victory over North Haven), the refs were giving us some pretty bad calls,” said senior Mike LaSala, one of the Wilton captains. “That got us fired up, and it carried over from there. We began to enjoy our role as underdogs.”
LaSala also pointed to a talk the Wilton players heard two days before the state tournament began from a U.S. soldier involved in the Wounded Warrior project.
“He talked about being in the moment and relying on teamwork,” said LaSala. “It was powerful, and it got us to concentrate on states when it would have been easy to throw in the towel with summer coming and after a disappointing regular season.”
That regular season, although so-so from a won-lost angle, aided the Warriors in the state tournament. Several of Wilton’s opponents, including top-ranked and previously unbeaten Avon, whom the Warriors defeated, 15-9, in the second round, had not encountered nearly the same level of competition that Wilton had.
“We went 8-8, which obviously isn’t great, but we played some really good teams,” said Wiseman. “And in many of those games we were right there. The players knew that if they had played a full 48 minutes they could have won some of those games. In the states, they played a full 48 minutes.”
Wilton also benefited from a Class M field that was not as stellar as in many seasons. Perennial power Darien (a 7-6 loser to the Warriors in the quarterfinals) was subpar by its standards, and even FCIAC champ New Canaan (a 5-4 loser in overtime to Barlow in the semifinals) was not a dominant team.
But the Warriors couldn’t control that — all they could do was go out and beat the teams they were playing. They did.
Now, Wilton adds another state championship banner to its already decorated collection. But in order to stand out and signify, perhaps the 2013 banner should have an asterisk.
For most unexpected.