The Robinson Rams are regulars at the state finals.
They’ve made four appearances over the past five boys lacrosse seasons with three championships to show for it. So a return trip this year wouldn’t seem extraordinarily meaningful to them, especially compared to the Battlefield Bobcats, who have never advanced to a title game in their 15 years as a program.
Yet, when Robinson and Battlefield met Tuesday in the semifinals of the Class 6 state tournament, the Rams had plenty of inspiration, and it seemed to show as they convincingly beat the Bobcats 14-6 by turning a slim 4-3 lead into a 13-3 advantage at home in Fairfax.
Among the Rams’ motivations: They played Tuesday, as they have all season, without Conner McGowan, who died in July from injuries sustained in a car accident less than two months after Robinson lost in the 2018 state final. So returning to the championship game this season felt special for the Rams.
“It means an incredible amount,” head coach Matt Curran said. “We’ve been devoting this season to him. Really everything that we do, we keep him in mind.
“We’re keeping his memory alive,” Curran said.
So perhaps Robinson (17-5) was destined to play for the state championship Saturday against Madison, and perhaps the Bobcats (16-6) were destined to fall in the semifinals for the third time in their history.
Prior to beating Oakton 16-11 last week, Battlefield hadn’t won a state quarterfinals game since 2013, when the Bobcats lost to Chantilly in the Class 6A state semifinals after falling to those same Chargers in the 2012 AAA state semifinals. So the 2019 Bobcats had one of their best seasons in program history despite losing at least 14 players following last season, when Battlefield lost in the state quarterfinals to Robinson, 13-10.
“We knew we had a good team, but … this group of guys achieved more than what we expected,” Battlefield coach Kevin Marsh said. “I’m proud of them. We got more out of these guys than we thought we would, so it means a lot that we got here" in the state semifinals.
Robinson similarly lost at least 11 players following last season, including Nick Rowlett, who now plays at the University of Michigan.
“One of the best faceoff guys in the country,” Curran said. “We lost a lot of really good players from last year’s team and I think that everybody in the world counted us out.”
The Rams had a strong pedigree, though, with Class 6A state championships in 2016, 2015 and 2014 before finishing as the 2018 Class 6 runner-up with an 11-10 loss to Oakton.
“We’ve had a nice little run here,” Curran said.
That can also be said about a 34-minute span Tuesday. Robinson amassed a 9-0 run in that time for an insurmountable 13-4 lead.
In the first period, the Bobcats scored three goals during a five-minute stretch, but they scored only three more over the final three quarters.
“Their offense is tough,” Curran said of Battlefield’s early success. “If you’re not used to it, it can definitely get you a couple times. We weren’t ready, but I think seeing it for a quarter … we figured out how we need to stop it."
Robinson also struggled at times offensively, especially due to the play of Battlefield goalie Nate George, who finished with 14 saves. George amassed 13 saves during the first three periods to keep the Bobcats’ deficit at only 9-3 entering the fourth quarter despite a 5-0 Rams run.
“Very good goalie,” Curran said. “We knew we couldn’t take 12-, 15-yard shots that he sees. We needed to take inside shots, screen shots, shots on the run. Making him move and then shooting off of a pass.”
George began the season as a backup goalie, but he took over as the starter midway through Battlefield’s schedule.
“He’s been great,” Marsh said. “He took the best of Robinson’s shots here in the first half. I think he got worn out at the end [because] he saw so much rubber.”
Marsh partially credited George for the Bobcats’ midseason surge. Following a modest 7-4 start to the spring, Battlefield went on a 7-0 run before a 13-6 loss to Madison in the Class 6 Region D championship game.
“We had a stretch in the middle of the season where we struggled,” Marsh said, “but we continued to work and definitely played our best lacrosse – not tonight, but – at the end of the season. So that’s something to be really proud of.”
The Rams out-shot Battlefield 34-23, so Robinson goalie Aiden Stack needed only six saves behind a stout defense. The Bobcats had even fewer quality shots than the Rams, so Robinson’s Eric Swagerty scored a game-high four goals with three from Declan Connolly, two from Max Alonso and one each from Zack Sands, Calvin Miller, Gabriel Perkins, Ben Dail and Aiden Schiefer.
Connolly also had two assists, while Ian Dinga and Kyle Canestra led Battefield with only two goals each. Jack Patane and Logan Cleary had one goal apiece with Patane adding two assists while Canestra had one.
“We could not penetrate their defense,” Marsh said. “We were trying to get to the middle of the field and they always had help. We were always running into a double team and we were not able to find the next open player because they were quick to react.”
Miller, a 6-foot-4 senior, led that Robinson defense with multiple forced turnovers and ground balls.
“He’s huge, and he’s a ground ball hawk,” Curran said. “He’s just all over the field, and he’s a lot faster than he looks. He has those long strides. He just covers so much ground.”
Against Miller and the Rams, Battlefield committed 12 turnovers while Robinson had seven, including only three over the opening three periods. That helped negate the Bobcats’ 12-9 advantage on faceoffs, led by Austin Galler.
“They didn’t make any mistakes,” Marsh said of the Rams.
Robinson had only a slight advantage on ground balls, 24-21, but that mattered little after Battlefield turned the ball over on its first three possessions of the game, which translated into a 3-0 lead for the Rams.
“Turnovers are what kill you,” Marsh said. “The defense can only hold them so much.”