By Jay Walden
Hillsborough, NC – The headline last night from HillsboroughSports.com says it all and reads “Walden’s four goals leads Northwood lax to East Regional title, dashes Orange’s dreams in 10-8 win”.
The article opens “The surroundings were there for a coronation”. Of course, they meant that Orange was heavily favored for the win and ready to take the title of Eastern Regional Champs after getting to the Final Four for the second year in a row and having lost last year to First Flight. They had also beaten Northwood five times straight and we had not won against them since March 2021. Problem is, they perhaps didn’t know that Northwood was ready to steal the crown and “Jaso King” Walden had an incredible night. His team OWNED most, if not all, of this game and they are now waking up this morning Eastern Regional Champs and do get to play one more time – Saturday at 11 am for the 3A/2A/1A State Championship!
Orange got the first goal, which was a rebound off a blocked shot by our Freshman goalie James Flanagan – the first of many blocked and saved goals to come. Our Senior Attack answered back with goals each from Will Smith, Taylor Laberge and Jason Walden to end the 1st on top 3-1. They would never give over the lead. Orange tied it up in the 2nd 3-3, but after that Northwood answered back and would hold a lead through the end of the game. They were 5-4 at halftime and 7-5 at the end of the 3rd period.
If dad can’t brag, who can? Jason had an amazing game. Not only his team-leading 4 goals for the night, but he also had amazing ground ball pick-ups and takeaways and was a menace to the goalie and got some tips on their attempts to clear. The whole team seemed to rise to the occasion and key players were at the top of their game. Taylor Laberge would end up with three, Will Smith for a double and Carson Fortunes got one in as well, on top of four assists. Van Reese and Grayson Cox were moving the ball well and feeding for shots.
As well as the offense did, Coach Cox says, “Defense wins championships” and that was certainly true last night. Sometimes defense does not get the attention it deserves for wins because they are not the ones getting the goals, but they are the ones who stopped Orange. Orange had their lowest scoring conference game of the year and our defense shutout their top scorer completely. Seniors Taylor Zelhof and Will Johnson put up a wall against the Orange offense with the help of Gian Marc Byers — all fighting hard to get the ball back. Junior D-pole Ryan Brinker had a breakout second half keeping the offense contained. When Orange did get some shots through, goalie James Flanagan came through with incredible saves and blocks. This helped us dominate possession of the ball and put it in the hands of our offense time and time again. Of course, a big difference maker was an incredible night of face-offs from Coltrane “Train” Northington. You can’t win games if you don’t get the ball and he was able to win faceoffs against an Orange player who had bested him in the previous two matchups. In this game, it was as if they had switched places and Train was getting the ball to his wings time and time again.
If you believe that the 11th man – the fans – can help win games, it was proven here. Together with Charger teammates on the Northwood sidelines, the Northwood fan side of the field was an incredible experience as well. We had the largest turnout I’ve ever seen, and it was not just the parents and family of the players. A good bunch of students came out to support, along with former student players, Chatham Cardinals aspiring to play in a high school championship, past coaches and just those that had been a part of the Northwood family. Our friends even came from Greensboro and brought signs to cheer on the team, and Jason’s uncle from California was in town and got to see the Chargers shine. Others brought cowbells, train whistles and there was endless hootin’ and hollerin’. We were so loud after goals, we couldn’t even hear the announcer.
I ordered “spirit bands” for players and fans, that arrived just before the game, in Northwood green and gold that read “Northwood Lacrosse – Finish 2023” which has been the theme of the year. We were all on our feet for the last minute of the game until the final seconds… 3-2-1 – they did it! I can’t wait to watch the video, but our team burst into excitement that could not be contained, sticks went flying to the moon and we all celebrated like, well, um, like our team just won a Championship game! I thought the thrill of the comeback win in Croatan just last week was unbeatable experience, but I was wrong. This win over our cross-town rivals for the regional title, was the sweetest.
Several of the graduating seniors Taylor Zelhof, Will Smith, Jason Walden, Taylor Laberge and Will Johnson stood side by side in 2019 to play on the middle school All-Star Team to cap their Chatham Cardinals season. While they still have one more game, last night they stood as Eastern Conference Champions – an incredible achievement and the best in Northwood Lacrosse history! Win or lose the next one, this can never be taken away.