It was the greatest challenge the Providence Day boys lacrosse players had faced this season.
That 11-7 defeat to Maryland-based Archbishop Spalding in early March? Sure, that was rough. So was the narrow 12-11 victory over highly ranked Charlotte Catholic and that emotional 10-8 win at heated rival Charlotte Country Day.
But those obstacles paled in comparison to the daunting task the Providence Day players faced in Wilmington during a spring break tournament. That, they said, was like enduring cruel and unusual punishment.
“Coach (Bobby) Thompson took our phones away,” senior midfielder Brendan McArdle said.
McArdle and his fellow seniors said life was tough during what “felt like an eternity” without texting, tweeting and surfing the Web. But each player now admits that Thompson’s decision to confiscate the phones was good for the team. The time away from hand-held technology made a close, talented squad even closer and better, they said.
They have the numbers to prove it: a 14-2 record and No. 2 state ranking by laxpower.com heading into their Friday, April 26 showdown with top-ranked Charlotte Latin.
And if the Chargers eventually are able to culminate their strong season with a state championship next month, many of them will reflect on what was their version of a Spartan existence down in Wilmington as the impetus.
“We were there for four days or so, and we had a lot of time for team bonding,” McArdle said. “When Coach Thompson took our phones, we all had to hang out together. We all couldn’t just be glued to our phones and doing our own thing.
“First, we were kind of disappointed about it, but I think it really helped. We wound up having a really good time, even without our phones.”
That weekend, the Chargers, even though many of them are upperclassmen who attended Providence Day’s lower school together, got to know each other better.
“My most vivid memories are of the team at the bowling alley,” senior midfielder Tony Asher said with a smile. “We had a good team-bonding experience. (Assistant) coach Jeff Thomsen was kind of teaching everybody the way of bowling, because nobody could knock down the pins quite like he could. And it was fun to have something other than lacrosse that we could all do together and just have fun and relax.”
But they also played some superb lacrosse, which contributed greatly to the Chargers’ confidence and momentum.
They opened that weekend with an 8-7 overtime win over hometown Hoggard High and followed that with a 19-6 victory over another local team, Ashley High, the next day. Before leaving town, the Chargers routed Cape Fear Academy, 12-7, and by then they believed in their hearts that they were the best team in the state.
But two games later, sporting an extra bounce in their steps and a 10-1 record, they traveled to Charlotte Latin and faced another major challenge. This time, things didn’t go so well.
In a grueling, double-overtime affair, Latin toppled the Chargers, 9-8, even though Asher won 72 percent of the face-offs and Steve Onak tallied three goals and an assist. But the defeat didn’t dissuade Providence Day. In fact, Onak said, the two losses have been just as helpful to the Chargers’ title push as their 14 victories.
“Going into the game against Archbishop Spalding, we kind of went in on our high horses and thought we were going to just hang in there with them and beat them,” Onak said. “That (loss) showed us that we weren’t as good as we thought we were – we still had a lot that we still needed to work on. That fed us motivation throughout the season.
“The double-overtime loss to Latin was just a tough loss. We didn’t play our best game by any means. It’s going to motivate us to do even better, just like the other (loss).”
Nearly everyone agrees that the Chargers have what it takes to win it all, particularly because of their rare combination of offensive and defensive dominance. Providence Day scores a robust average of 13.3 goals per game while allowing foes to toss in 8.6.
The highly regarded Onak is the focal point of the offense, but he receives plenty of help, as senior Jonathan Henry had scored 21 goals with 11 assists in the first 14 games. Jake Chandler and Lawson Ives lead a defense that shines in front of goalkeeper Mitch Renfrow, who has saved 60 percent of the shots that have gotten to him. Meanwhile, Asher has won 74 percent of the face-offs.
“It’s funny – on the offensive side, we’re very senior-heavy, and on the defensive side we’re very junior-heavy,” Thompson said. “They battle each other at practice all the time. There’s some very spirited competition.”
And many of them are players that others covet. Three members of the senior class have signed with college programs: Onak (Siena College in New York), McArdle (Centre College in Kentucky), Henry (Washington and Lee in Virginia).
In addition, juniors Chandler (Bryant University in Rhode Island) and Renfrow (Air Force Academy) already have committed to colleges.
That’s been a trend since Thompson took over the Providence Day program in 2005, as 12 previous Chargers had gone on to compete at the college level entering this season. And the most recent list won’t even include Asher, who Thompson said is good enough to play at the next level, but the senior recently won the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship to the University of North Carolina. Thompson said Asher is considering trying out for the Tar Heels squad.
“The guys have worked hard throughout the years, and (the players on this year’s squad) are no different,” said Thompson, a Siena College graduate. “The key for us this year is we have a very strong group of seniors. Four of them have been with us since freshman year – Steve, Tony, Brendan and Jonathan. That core has been kind of driving the engine this year.
“We’ve had some ups and downs. We’ve had a lot of close games where we’ve come out on top, and we had the double-OT loss to Latin. So things aren’t as clean as the record looks, but we’re heading in the right direction and getting ready for the playoffs.”
And once the Chargers get to the postseason, good things usually happen. Providence Day has reached the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association playoffs in each of Thompson’s campaigns, but, more impressive, the team has reached the state championship game four times in those seven previous seasons. That includes 2007, when the Chargers took home the crown.
But with that success has come a little bit of heartbreak. For example, in four of the last five years, the Chargers have been eliminated from the playoffs after either an overtime or double-overtime loss.
“Our seniors have had their fair share of disappointment, to say the least,” Thompson said.
But that’s also part of what inspires this year’s edition of the Chargers. They embrace their rich tradition established under Thompson, but they also believe they have the accoutrements to write a different ending to the story this season.
“We’re definitely trying to make the most of this season,” senior attack Patrick White said. “We’ve got a lot of senior leadership to help the young guys out. Maybe a loss or two would’ve been nice, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
Senior midfielder Braxton Mosack echoed those sentiments.
“I think we’re still improving every game and working out the kinks,” Mosack said. “Hopefully, by the time May comes around, we’ll be hitting our full stride and clicking on all cylinders.”
But because of all they’ve been through this season – Cell Phone Gate, the two tough losses, the new-found closeness that emerged from their amateur bowling league that weekend in Wilmington – the Chargers believe they’re equipped to bring home their school’s second state title in six years.
“I think what will define us is how we do come May,” Henry said. “I think we all have that goal in the back of our minds of finally winning that state championship. But if we take flashes of moments in certain games and say, ‘Piece these together and play that complete game,’ I think that’s when something special will happen.”