To the casual observer, Myers Park’s first win of this 2013 boys lacrosse season probably didn’t appear to be much different from any of the 2012 campaign, when the Mustangs reached the state semifinals.
But to senior midfielder Drew Ortiz, it was.
Ortiz had been waiting a long time to put up a performance like he did in the Mustangs’ 14-8 win over Whitefield Academy (Ga.) on March 9. The senior netted six goals in only his second full game back on any playing field in nearly seven months.
Back in August, Ortiz was poised to be one of the top wide receivers on the Myers Park football team. One week before the season began, however, a teammate fell on Ortiz’s leg, tearing a ligament in his knee and sidelining him for the entire gridiron season.
“It was really hard to have to sit and watch,” said Ortiz, who added that he’d never missed a game in any sport until his football injury.
“The first couple of months were really bad because it was really painful, but it’s gotten better and better ever since.”
First-year Mustangs coach Kevin Iwanusa said that other than a protective knee brace Ortiz wears on his left knee – which he said is now fully healed – there hasn’t been a noticeable difference in Ortiz’s game.
“He’s the same kid,” said Iwanusa, who was the Mustangs’ offensive coordinator last season.
“If anything, I’ve been holding him back, but on the field he’s playing just as well as he did last year.”
Which says a lot, as Ortiz was sensational last season when he scored 57 goals and added 37 assists while earning all-conference, all-state and all-region honors to back up his All-American status.
Ortiz has signed a National Letter of Intent to play at High Point University, but he said just being able to get back on the field was a good starting point entering this season.
“I was really motivated to get back on the field and start competing again,” Ortiz said. “It was a little weird at first, but I played pretty well in the first game and hope to play well all year. I want to keep winning, keep the team going and get us to the state championship.”
Iwanusa said that with Ortiz and Reid Foley, an Air Force recruit and fellow All-American who scored 53 goals and added 59 assists last season, the Mustangs have an advantage over most teams.
“We’re really fortunate to have two players that are that good,” Iwanusa said. “Most teams have one really good player, but we have two. They play so fast and that, and their talent, is what separates them.”
Ortiz said he enjoys playing with Foley, with whom he combined to score nine goals in the March 9 win, because the two share a connection on the field.
“It’s fun playing with Reid,” Ortiz said. “I don’t know what it is about playing with him, we just go out there and try to have a good time. We’ve had some success together, and I’m excited we can keep it going.”
Iwanusa said that having two players of Foley and Ortiz’s stature is also a benefit to everyone else on the team because it makes them raise their levels of play in practice. The coach added that while both athletes are great at being team-first players, Ortiz exemplifies the qualities he hopes to see in his star players.
“He’s great,” Iwanusa said of Ortiz. “I talked to him (last week) about how he leads by example better than anyone that we have on the team. He goes hard all of the time, he always gives 100
percent effort, and it shows on game days.
“He’s a tremendous goal scorer and a great playmaker who can do pretty much anything he wants to, but he’s not a (newspaper) headlines guy. He doesn’t need to make sure he gets all of his goals; he’s more worried about the team winning. Having a star player, that’s one thing you look for as a coach, and it’s how Drew is.”
Ortiz is hoping to lead the Mustangs to the state championship game, which they narrowly missed last season after falling to eventual champion Lake Norman in the semifinals. Last season’s 17-4 record wasn’t just a flash in the pan, either, as the Mustangs won 11 games in 2011 and went 19-1 while winning the state title in 2010.
This year’s team is favored to win Conference 11 and is poised to be one of the state’s top teams. How well the Mustangs ultimately do depends largely on Ortiz, Foley and senior Brad Pellisaro, another important part of the Mustangs’ success.
“Those guys set such a great example for everyone,” Iwanusa said. “It really raises everyone’s level when they see how hard the best players are working.
“Some guys try to coast for a while and then turn it on during the games or when they need to. But Drew, in particular, is one who always goes hard. When you’re on the gas pedal all of the time like he is, you don’t know a different speed.”
That drive to improve is something that Iwanusa said has helped Ortiz recover from the devastating knee injury and return to form as one of the Mustangs’ key cogs. The coach also believes it will also help Ortiz on the next level.
“Having him play year-round will only help him get better,” Iwanusa said. “Right now, he’s only really playing during the season because he’s been focused on football in the past.
“Drew will be a very successful college player. When he gets to a point that he’s playing all of the time and playing with better players, that will just raise his game even higher. He’ll thrive in that system, and he’ll want to push himself to improve when he’s surrounded by better players.”
But first, Ortiz has some work to do getting this year’s Mustangs, who lost their first two games of the season before the March 9 win, back up to speed. He said at first it was just good to be competing again. But after his six-goal performance, it seems Ortiz is back to his old self.
“It’s nice to be out here,” Ortiz said. “I’m a lot more motivated for lacrosse this season than I’ve ever been because I didn’t get to play any during football (season).
“I haven’t been on a field in a while, so I hope to make the most of it.”