The Community School of Naples boys lacrosse team gathers for a pregame huddle before squaring off against Collier County mainstay Barron Collier on March 20. Barron Collier won 5-3 in a weather-shortened affair. GREGG HARDY/CSI
You know that decade-plus stranglehold the Barron Collier High School boys lacrosse team has had on the rest of Collier County? It appears to be loosening.
Actually, when you look at what’s transpired this season, it may be gone altogether.
There’s blue blood in the water, and the Sharks are circling.
So are the Golden Eagles. And the Seahawks, too.
Barron Collier has been the only boys program in Collier County to experience deep postseason runs since lacrosse made the transition from a club to varsity sport in the latter half of the last decade. But now, in what is shaping up as a watershed season in Collier County boys lacrosse, the Cougars’ dominance over their local rivals seems to be all but over.
“Absolutely, there is (blood in the water), and Naples proved it,” Barron Collier coach John Sivillo said.
He was alluding to the Cougars’ first-ever loss to Naples. (The schools have a bitter rivalry in most, if not all, sports, but lacrosse hasn’t been one of them.) And while Barron holds narrow wins against Gulf Coast and Community School of Naples, they were close games — 10-9 over the Sharks, and 5-3 over the Seahawks in a weather-shortened game that was called at halftime.
“I think it shows our kids that that mystique of Barron’s (is) kind of being chipped away at more and more,” Gulf Coast assistant coach Mark Woodruff said when asked what the Sharks learned from their March 8 encounter at Barron Collier. “… They continue to be good, but that level between Barron and everybody else is shrinking.”
“In previous years, you wouldn’t stand a chance of beating Barron,” said Community School coach Rich Lewton, whose Seahawks will get the first crack in the postseason against the Cougars when the District 20 tournament begins next week. “The talent level is getting really close. The days of them stepping on the field and automatically winning are over … and they know it. We know it.”
In truth, Collier County now has four teams that look capable of making a deep postseason run: Barron Collier, Community School, Gulf Coast and Naples. They’ve been beating up on each other throughout the season, so it’s hard to say which team can lay claim to county bragging rights. That’ll be decided next week.
Let’s take a look at these four teams:
True, the Cougars are not getting the blowout victories over some of their local foes like they have in the past, but had they not been victimized by a last-second play of national highlight proportions against Naples, they could easily have a 3-0 combined record against the Sharks, Golden Eagles and Seahawks.
“We’ve had a little bit of a rough season,” Sivillo admitted. “I won’t say we’re rebuilding. We’ve got new coaches, new offense, new defense. It’s been a struggle for us all season. We’ve lost a lot of games that we should’ve won.
“We know we have a big target on our back. We’ve been saying it all season.”
Sivillo offered up a theory as to why other county lacrosse teams are catching up to Barron Collier: housing.
“We’re not getting an influx of kids — Palmetto (Ridge) is, Gulf Coast is,” Sivillo said. “There are more homes being built over that area, which is changing the dynamics over here. It’s very expensive to buy a house in this area (for prospective homeowners with children).
“That means we gotta work harder, and we’ve got to get some better feeder programs or work the feeder program better. If it’s local here, if it’s through the county, whatever it may be, we’ve got to still build it up, and we’re trying to do that. It’s just difficult; it’s hard. It just takes hard work, and we’ve got to do that in the summer with our travel program.”
And even though it’s against his program’s best interests, Sivillo is happy to see lacrosse becoming more competitive — and popular — in Collier County.
“I think the competition is getting better,” he said. “It’s great. I don’t necessarily want it as the head coach at Barron, but I think it’s awesome to see the growth coming up.”
Injuries have not helped Barron Collier’s cause this season. Several Cougars — including standouts Bryce Cousins, a face-off specialist who’s a Division I commit for Jacksonville University, and midfielder Jacob Kuhlman — have missed time due to ankle surgery, knee surgery, concussions and foot problems, among other ailments.
But the postseason is around the corner, and the Cougars are much healthier now. They’re also a senior-laden team — eight pending graduates in all — that has the belief and know-how to win in the postseason. They also have potent attackmen in Jayson Andino and Jack Laterra and boast serious depth at the midfielder position, including playmakers Will Asher and Jake Scuderi.
“We want to build (momentum) and be successful at the right time, and postseason is the right time,” Sivillo said. “I’m always confident, but it’s the team that has to be confident. I hope they do it. They’re great kids; they’re great lacrosse players. They just got to do it together. It’s up to them now.”
With a double-overtime home win over Naples early in the season, and a couple of hard-fought losses to Naples and Barron Collier, CSN may just be the “Little Engine That Could” in District 20.
“We play the big boys; we don’t take any shortcuts,” said Lewton, who felt CSN’s 14-11 loss to Naples may have turned out differently had the Seahawks not been without top defender Chris Murphy. “We take on Naples; we take on Barron.”
Lewton said the Seahawks’ 13-12 double-overtime win over the Golden Eagles in the second game of the season “got everyone’s attention” — even if it didn’t count toward the district standings. It gave CSN the confidence that it could play with — and beat — the bigger programs.
That confidence was bolstered a bit when the Seahawks, despite a slow start, found themselves within two goals of Barron Collier at halftime when the game was ended early due to lightning and rain.
“Our guys said, ‘Wow, they are not the juggernaut that they used to be or that we think they are,” Lewton said. “We’ve closed the gap.”
As is the case with most small schools competing against larger ones, the Seahawks face a numbers problem. While guys like Mike Binkowski, Tyson Chur, Chris Kastroll and Landon Micelle give CSN the offensive firepower to hang with the big boys, the Seahawks lack depth at the midfield position.
“Our biggest problem is not the quality of our players, it’s the quantity,” Lewton said. “In the game of lacrosse, in theory your attackmen get to rest half the game, your defensemen get to rest half the game. But a good team should have two or three quality midfields — I’m talking about nine equally talented middies. We’ve been doing it by basically running four total midfielders together, so we don’t even have two midfield lines.
“We just don’t have the depth. And so the ones that we’re running, they’re giving their hearts and souls.”
One of those midfielders is Seamus O’Malley, who Lewton called a “workhorse.”
“He does the grunt work, knows his role,” Lewton said. “He’s got a heart as big as a house.”
If there’s a Collier County high school team that best exemplifies the growing popularity of lacrosse in recent years, it’s the Sharks, who have a roster full of sophomores and just five seniors.
Normally, a sophomore-laden squad would likely mean a schedule full of lopsided losses.
Not with Gulf Coast.
Woodruff, an assistant on head coach Brett Queener’s staff, credited youth leagues like the Collier County Lacrosse Association for sending experienced players on to the high school level.
“Five or six years ago, we were getting athletes, but athletes with no lacrosse experience,” said Woodruff, who also serves as head coach for the Gulf Coast girls basketball team. “Now kids are coming to high school with three or four years of lacrosse experience under their belt. So you’re seeing a lot higher quality of game now than you did (in past years).”
Some of the Sharks’ key contributors include two sophomores, goalie Dylan Whelan and attackman Ben Jolley (who Woodruff said is “scoring a lot”), and freshman attackman Trace Davidson.
“We’re extremely young, so the future’s pretty bright,” Woodruff said.
The Sharks have plenty of quality wins under their belt this season, including 9-6 and 14-3 triumphs over Naples and CSN, respectively, as well as a 9-7 victory over Berkeley Prep, which is struggling a bit this season after reaching the state quarterfinals in 2017. Gulf Coast’s three losses may be more impressive: 10-9 at Barron Collier; 16-9 at home to IMG Academy, which is ranked 36th in the nation; and 9-8 to Canterbury, which is ranked 13th in the state.
Playing in District 19, the Sharks should catch a bit of a break. They’ll likely have to deal with a decent Immokalee squad in the district title game, but the Indians — who are rebuilding after a solid 2017 campaign — look to be outmatched. After that, Gulf Coast would play the District 20 champion.
Confidence is at an all-time high for the Golden Eagles lacrosse program. Why shouldn’t it be?
They have Zeb Fuller, a junior goalie and co-captain who has claimed “stud” status at his position. Woodruff said Fuller is “by far the best goalie in the area,” while Sivillo called him a “phenomenal” Division I-caliber goalie.
They wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the District 20 tournament for the first time in program history. Along the way, they experienced another first: beating Barron Collier on the Cougars’ home turf (and doing so in dramatic fashion — by converting a Hail Mary pass with three seconds left to cap a comeback from four goals down).
Naples coach Jamie Stoddard said his team’s confidence after the Barron win “skyrocketed” — but the Eagles were a confident bunch to begin with.
“We believe,” Stoddard said. “We all believe this is our season. We know how it’s going to play out.”
In truth, the Golden Eagles have been building toward this breakout season for the last few years. Like Woodruff at Gulf Coast, Stoddard believes Naples has benefited from its players gaining valuable experience playing for youth organizations like the CCLA.
“First time in a long time that there’s been youth coming up into the program that have played before, and that definitely helps out,” Stoddard said.
Naples is not loaded with quality young talent like Gulf Coast — the Eagles have just one sophomore and one freshman on their roster. However, that one freshman is attackman Macky Peck, who’s been scoring in bunches this season.
Peck’s contributions have complemented those of several Naples upperclassmen this season. The Golden Eagles’ attack has been led by the senior captain trio of Christian Drouin, Hunter Thornhill and Alex Lykins. Junior midfielders Nathan Graney and Zachary Woodring have also performed well.
It was Lykins and Drouin who combined to give the Eagles’ their historic win over Barron. With the teams deadlocked at 11-all and overtime looking like a forgone conclusion, Lykins flung a pass — Stoddard called it a “dime” — in the neighborhood of 70 or 80 yards to Drouin’s awaiting stick. Drouin caught the pass and in one motion, whipped around and fired from point-blank-range into the Cougars’ net.
Email Gregg Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CSI on Twitter at @239CSI or like CSI on Facebook at facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider.