By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Sawyer McElhatton)
Paul Mengel, who played lacrosse at Episcopal High School and later in college, shouted encouragement as he watched his son and his T.C. Williams teammates try to claw back from a 7-0 deficit against West Springfield on Tuesday night.
Mengel liked the hustle and hard work he saw from the team and coach, but said the Titans were outmatched in ways that go beyond the play on the field.
“A lot of these kids are putting sticks in their hands for the first time in high school, whereas a lot of programs like West Springfield and South County have kids that have come up through the county programs since they were eight years old,” he said.
“You’re not going to be a starting pitcher for T.C.’s baseball team if the first time you’ve held a ball is as a freshman, so Alexandria needs to groom these kids earlier and expose kids from all over the city to the sport a lot earlier.”
“That said, my hat’s off to these kids and Coach [Mike] Mulherin. They work hard.”
It’s been a persistent observation over the years when it comes to T.C. lacrosse. While T.C. is Alexandria’s only public high school, much of the city’s young lacrosse talent gets snatched up by private schools: St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes, Episcopal and Bishop Ireton. While the coaches behind the Titans program have worked to get more youth interested, they’ve watched as key players departed for boarding schools before the season’s start.
Mulherin said Tuesday night’s loss was tough because he felt like the Titans could have made it a closer game, but unforced errors and some errant passes let the game slip away.
As far as recruiting efforts, he said things are looking up as there’s been more attendance at youth clinics. The season has turned around, too. T.C. started off with six straight losses, but then went 3-2 before the defeat to West Springfield.
The team’s first win came in a confidence-boosting 12-7 victory over Ireton. The Titans also have beaten Stuart and Robert E. Lee.
The team is decidedly young with just four seniors on the roster. One of them, captain Carter Goodwin, has been injured for much of the year. And the junior varsity squad on Monday earned a lopsided 16-0 win against Edison High School.
Among other bright spots, T.C. has one of the best faceoff specialists in the area in junior Reece Belcher, who spends about an hour each night in his basement listening to a whistle on his cell phone go off over and over again.
The purpose, he explained, is to get his timing just right so that he’ll be able to react in an instant.
Belcher rarely loses a faceoff, a speciality that’s in demand at the college level.
Still, the early possessions secured by Belcher’s faceoff wins didn’t translate into goals Tuesday.
T.C. kept the score close at 2-0 after the first quarter but then fell behind 7-0, and only managed to score in the closing minute of the first half. Adin Mengel ran past a much bigger defender who, realizing he’d been beaten, put his stick up near the T.C. junior’s shoulders. As another defender approached, Mengel sent the ball into the very far top left corner of the net.
Mengel may be among the smaller players on the field, but he’s also quick and says he uses his size to his advantage.
“I can use their size against them,” he said. “I can roll under them, through them, off them.”
The Titans nearly made the score 7-2 with time running out, but the referee said the shot went in just after the horn. T.C. scored twice more on goals by Belcher, but West Springfield already had built enough of a cushion. The final score was 10-3.
As the clock ran down, the elder Mengel said one of the frustrating things is watching the development of players who are new to the sport.
He said by the time they’re seniors, they’re getting good — but then, of course, they’re gone.
“You’re going to have a handful of kids who have been playing and coming up through the program, and then you’ll have kids who have just never played,” he said. “Alexandria needs to get sticks in kids’ hands sooner. The talent pool is already there.”