Brief past, but growing up fast: Duluth Wolfpack boys streaking toward playoffs
Life was good for the Duluth Wolfpack on Monday evening at Ordean Stadium. They were fresh off taking down Champlin Park 6-5 in overtime on Saturday, which pushed their record to 9-1 and eased any concerns that a 5-2 loss to Hill-Murray the night...
Life was good for the Duluth Wolfpack on Monday evening at Ordean Stadium. They were fresh off taking down Champlin Park 6-5 in overtime on Saturday, which pushed their record to 9-1 and eased any concerns that a 5-2 loss to Hill-Murray the night before would sidetrack a promising spring.
As the Wolfpack practiced Monday, it was easy to forget this boys lacrosse team is still in its infancy, at least as a varsity sport. The Denfeld-East co-op club's 9-1 mark is seventh-best among 85 schools in the state, and its stingy defense that allows 3.9 goals per game ranks second.
Imagine how good the Wolfpack can be once they grow some roots. An offshoot of the consistently successful Duluth Chargers club team, the Wolfpack are in their third Minnesota State High School League season. As such, the roster features several players that are relative lacrosse newbies - something you wouldn't find in, say, hockey.
"We're still seeing new guys come in as juniors and seniors that are very good, but raw," coach Scott Wishart said.
Added junior midfielder Will Smyth: "Right now, it's kind of like if you play lacrosse, you're on the team."
Still trying to grow the game, the Wolfpack welcome all comers. And Wishart relishes the multi-sport athletes, but, like any coach, he's intrigued by the thought of developing a pipeline of players whose focus is lacrosse.
Increasingly, that's becoming the norm.
"Every year we get guys playing in the summer, playing in the fall, playing winter leagues, playing with different traveling teams," said Wishart, who coached the Chargers before the Wolfpack launched. "They're doing it more than two months out of the year."
With two games remaining in the regular season, Duluth is closing in on the No. 1 seed for the Section 7 playoffs. The Wolfpack are 5-0 against section foes entering tonight's contest at Hermantown-Proctor and have a healthy cushion in the race for the top seed, according to the Minnesota Scores website's Quality Results Formula, which determines the bracket.
That could come as a surprise. Smyth expected the Wolfpack defense to be stout, but he worried about the midfield, a position that was hit hard by graduation last year.
Duluth, though, is finding ways to win. At 9.1 goals a night, its offense is solid if not spectacular. The Wolfpack showed they could score plenty over a four-game stretch from April 27 to May 8. They defeated Minneapolis 12-9, Simley 13-6 and Sartell-Sauk Rapids 19-3. In between, they leaned on their strength - defense - to slip past Tartan 4-3.
In their inaugural season of 2016, the Wolfpack went 4-11, downing Hermantown-Proctor in a section play-in game before being bounced by Anoka. Last year, they were slightly better, finishing 6-9 after again falling to Anoka in the second round of the playoffs.
The improvement went into overdrive this spring, leading the Wolfpack to believe they're gradually reeling in the competition. It's not easy. Some programs in the state are well-established, with thriving feeder systems that send players to high school with sound foundations and nifty lacrosse IQs.
The Wolfpack are getting there.
"I feel like we have closed the gap," senior captain and defender Johnny Wentzlaff said. "I think we're a competitive team and we're only going to get better."
To that point, Wishart alludes to a youth program that goes all the way down to U8. Youngsters are exposed to lacrosse and given every opportunity to stick with it.
That's all well and good, of course, but current members of the Wolfpack are more concerned with the here and now.
Some of them are veterans of the sport.
"There's a group of us that have been playing together since fifth grade, all the way through," said junior attacker Jackson Hill, who has a team-high 26 goals.
Hill, along with James Holak, Jayden Erie and Costa Gomez lead the offense. Goalie Nick Madden anchors the back end.
The Wolfpack conclude the regular season Saturday at Brainerd. Then, it's on to the section quarterfinals June 1, almost certainly at home - no play-in game this time around.
Hill says the Wolfpack are confident they can reach the state tournament, which would be an improbable accomplishment for a third-year outfit.
"I think our team can stand up with anyone right now," Hill said. "We've been playing really well, we've been grinding, and it's really cool to see."
Added Wishart: "We are getting closer."