They did it! First-year coach. First Area Championship. First appearance in the state tournament.
The Varsity Boys Lacrosse team heads into the State Championship tournament tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. as the Area's No. 1 seed against Decatur High School behind a coach who always believed it was possible.
“With all our seniors, we’ve had great leadership from the top. They have had a very positive attitude from the jump, and that has radiated through the rest of the team,” Head Coach Jacob Nichols said. “They didn’t see it coming, but more than anything else, there’s more structure this season than in the past, and they have all bought in.”
Before Coach Nichols took over the team this year, Walker Varsity Lacrosse had a losing record. They had won one game each season over the past three years. This season, they are 11-5 and undefeated in the Area.
Nichols, who played lacrosse in high school and at Columbus State, is at the end of his first year as Walker’s Head Lacrosse Coach and Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach. He wasn’t the team’s only new face.
“We have 13 seniors on our team of 23, and a good number of those players are new. Three of them are brand new to lacrosse, and three others didn’t start playing until last season,” Nichols said. “Three of my four starting defensive players have only been playing lacrosse for three months.”
One seasoned senior – Jack Alfi – has played on the team all four years. As goalie, he ranks second in the state for all levels with 186 saves this season.
“Before the season, coach was already writing down names and watching film. He went to games to scout-out teams. He gave us full scouting reports and figured out what we needed to work on in practice,” Alfi said. “Most importantly, he completely changed the attitude.”
It all started with their first victory in the season opener against Riverwood.
“We have never won the opener before – and we lost to that team my freshman year 26-2. This year, we won 9-3. That really set the tone,” said Alfi, Walker’s defensive captain. “When you beat a team you didn’t expect to beat, you start thinking – what else can we do?”
One of this season’s most impactful players has been freshman Finley Radding, who has been playing lacrosse since the first grade.
“I knew their record when I started and I was a little nervous because I knew we didn’t have a good history. But we got a bunch of new seniors to join, which helped,” said Radding, the team’s offensive captain. “These are physical guys – athletes – and it was easy for them to come in and help out. For most of our team, this is their first year touching a lacrosse stick.”
Radding said his favorite memory of the season was the game against North Cobb Christian. He scored the game-tying goal and then the winning goal in overtime.
Thursday’s match-up is against a 5A program, a much larger school, but Nichols isn’t intimidated.
“If we are being completely realistic, we’re not supposed to be here. Everyone else in the state has probably already put Decatur through to the second round,” Nichols said. “But we’re here, so why not give them our best shot?”
For senior Riley Eckstrom, who has played on the Walker team all four years of high school, it has been a particularly memorable season.
“It has been beyond exciting,” said Eckstrom, captain of the midfield. “We were shocked when it started to happen, and it motivated us to work harder and practice. We are very thankful for our coach. He committed to us and put all his effort into our team. He didn’t define us by our past. At the beginning of the season, he told us we would win at least half of our games.”
And as for Thursday?
“I think we’ll win – at least I hope so,” Eckstrom said. “If anything, this season has taught us to have faith.”
Varsity Boys Lacrosse plays Decatur HS tomorrow at 7:30 PM in a first round game of the State Championship tournament. Varsity Girls Lacrosse plays GAC at 5:30 PM. The girls also won their Area and are playing in the State Championship tournament for the second consecutive year.