Playing on the mid-line produced another winning season for Robert Woolley and the Kent Island High boys' lacrosse team.
Turns out the blossoming of talent around the Mid-Shore has made that intangible attribute into something very real, and no doubt oncoming.
Woolley, the Buccaneers' third-year head coach, turned over a considerable part of a roster that harkened back to the state-title winning days for the program, a roster that was splintered, tattered, and in dire need of a reboot.
It's not surprising Woolley, who is owner and operator of The Edge Training Academy in Stevensville, a site where many of his players hone their body and mind at the state-of-the-art workout facility, would tout this "mid-line", the middle, the core, the center of balance, if you will.
"It brought a lot of question marks to a close about their 2019 desires when I walk into our weight room at The Edge after school, any given day, to see many underclassmen working out on their own as members of our gym," Woolley said. "It makes for a special place when you get to see their dreams on full display through their individual efforts."
Those individual efforts resulted in seven Buccaneers being named to the 2019 All-North Bayside first and second teams as selected by the coaches. A player of the year nod was not awarded, fitting, considering the announced all-division roster was littered with performers functioning at or near peak, with no clear-cut front-runner pulling away from the pack.
The Star Democrat sports staff, however, bestowed Woolley with the coach-of-the-year recognition following Kent Island's sixth Bayside Conference championship in seven seasons. Though the Bucs fell short of a state tournament appearance after losing to Parkside in the Class 2A East Section II final, Woolley still has plenty of positives to carry into 2020, a symbolic turning of one decade and the continued pursuit of the fabled mid-line.
And perhaps for the first time, the pursuit will feature a decidedly even playing field for the top-flight players.
Additions from private schools Saints Peter and Paul and Gunston pushed the first-team lineup to a whopping 18 players, all equally deserving, and potentially headed toward the day the Eastern Shore's best stand toe to toe with Maryland's top performers.
"From my point of view, what you see is a lot more players making time to play the sport year round," Woolley said. "As the talent pool rises, it will spread, and with that spread, you will see more congruent ability among the players.
"It's in the rise of the kids playing more frequently," Woolley added. "There are still outliers who seek out extra opportunities and focus on one sport, but on the Shore, there are a lot of multi-sport athletes, because it's not as dense as some of the schools west of the Bay Bridge that we're battling."
Since taking over the program in 2017, Woolley has overseen one trip to the state playoffs (2018) and three appearances in the Bayside title tilt. Last season was the first under Woolley when all remnants of the historically dominating, 2015 state championship squad had graduated, leading to a more balanced attack and sharing of the scoring load.
Woolley's coaching staff, comprised of assistant Jim Claborn, offensive coordinator Josh Hahn, goalies coach Rich Betcher, and faceoff guru Justin Berry, watched their team begin the season with two losses during the first three weeks, the latter a 12-10, home setback to defending Bayside champion James M. Bennett.
Kent Island turned it on thereafter, winning seven of eight games heading into the East Section II final, while allowing less than 10 goals in all but one outing. The team was beginning to gel, relying on a smart combination of skill and will, whereas previous Kent Island teams flat-out overpowered opponents.
The Buccaneers' most impressive win of the season came in the Bayside final, when an offensive explosion obliterated Bennett in front of a frenzied crowd at Wicomico County Stadium. The 17-7 shellacking secured the first finger in another attempt to re-take stranglehold of the conference.
It also softened the memories of the Bayside championship loss Kent Island suffered to the Clippers in 2018, a 16-13 defeat that ended a run of five straight conference titles.
"The Bayside win, I really think the guys really started to believe in themselves," Woolley said. "We had to prove we are who we are. The early-season game (loss against Bennett) was sitting in our heads, and we were still second-guessing ourselves from last year's Bayside game.
"Those guys came out hungry," Woolley added of his Bucs. "And there was no looking back. Everybody played a really good game that day, and we were firing on all cylinders."
A convincing, 13-7 win over Easton followed in the 2A East Section II semifinals, Kent Island's fifth straight against a quality opponent, with a dominating 73-39 scoring differential.
Kent Island's run, however, ended at the hands of the Rams by an 8-7 score, a game played in rainy weather, on a muddy field nearing the end of a school year's worth of sports, and against a full-strength Parkside team looking for revenge after a 7-3, regular-season loss in early April in Stevensville.
The Rams, known for their stifling defense, happily accepted the nearly unfathomable 21 unforced turnovers committed by the Buccaneers, and slowed the pace close to a standstill at times to curtail Kent Island's tendencies to get out and run.
"They definitely were able to slow us down in transition," Woolley said of Parkside. "It was pretty wet out there, that fed to their advantage, and they were able to set up in their zone defense.
"It made for a tough day of ball-handling," Woolley added. "Twenty-one unforced turnovers, it was off the charts, uncustomary, and in the wrong direction for us.
"The response in general from the team was, 'Wow'," Woolley continued. "When you don't take care of the ball, you're going to lose the game, and during the end-of-season meeting, we decided we won't let those simple types of mistakes cost us a potential state championship."
As it was, this year's Bucs fell a bit short of the rite of passage so many predecessors completed: a state playoff berth. Still, they remain the class of the Bayside Conference, and the only Eastern Shore program to win two state championships in lacrosse.
The current crop of Buccaneers will continue fighting for a return to the Class 2A penthouse, and their strong-willed coaching staff will likely play a big hand if the program is to restore its full glory.
"The seniors and the juniors coming back are tough, sophomore class is really tough, and those guys get it," Woolley said. "We have to do the little things to get the big picture.
"Managing the mid-line," Woolley emphasized a final time. "When you get really high after a big win, you can't forget to prepare for the next one. You can't ride on highs and lows. Find the mid-line, and finish the season at your best."
Here is a look at the 2019 All-Mid-Shore boys' lacrosse teams, as selected by a combination of the area coaches and The Star Democrat sports staff:
* * *
Finn Gibbs, Jr., Easton
The Warriors' leading scorer, team captain and ProStart Lacrosse member netted 41 goals (third in the Mid-Shore) to go with 11 assists.
Matthew Bastian, Sr., Kent Island
Bastian, who was third among all Mid-Shore players with 68 points (No. 1 in the North Bayside), dropped 35 goals and 33 assists to cap a strong career with Kent Island. He is headed to the University of Maryland, where he intends to play club lacrosse for the school.
Wyatt LaClair, Jr., North Caroline
LaClair moved to attack and turned in a balanced season, netting 28 goals, 14 assists, while scooping 15 grounders.
Aidan Ryan, Sr., Saints Peter and Paul
The All-Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association selection was second among all Mid-Shore players with 44 goals and tops with 37 assists, his 81 points ranking first in the area.
Cory Morgan, So., Midfield, Saints Peter and Paul
Morgan tied teammate Ryan with 44 goals, tops on the Sabres and second on the Mid-Shore, adding 21 assists to round out a strong offensive game.
Cole Evans, Sr., Gunston
Evans, headed to Christopher Newport (Va.) University this fall, bookended a 277-point career with a Mid-Shore best 47 goals and a robust 32 assists, his 79 points second in the area. Evans was named first-team in both the Eastern Shore Independent Athletic Conference and Maryland Independent Lacrosse League E division.
Cole Kratovil, Jr., Kent Island
Kratovil, a member of the ProStart Lacrosse club out of Annapolis, had a solid 29 goals and 17 assists, including four goals in a North Bayside-winning effort against Queen Anne's County.
Michael Stumpf, Jr., North Caroline
The third-year varsity player posted 14 goals, seven assists and 15 groundballs, a consistent threat in the midfield during a relatively up-and-down campaign for the Bulldogs.
Thomas Murray, Sr., Queen Anne's
The Lynn (Fla.) University-bound Murray finished his last season on a strong note, scoring 25 goals, while adding nine assists and 22 groundballs. Murray was also a player on the MDX Revolutions Nationals lacrosse club.
Long Stick Midfielder
Thatcher Knox, Jr., Easton
The cog in the Warriors' midfield, Knox, who also plays for ProStart, scooped 107 groundballs (third in the Mid-Shore), caused 27 turnovers and chipped in two goals and five assists.
Nick Fenex, Sr., Queen Anne's
Long one of the top defensive players on the Eastern Shore, the Rock Lacrosse member corralled 26 grounders while routinely checking the best player on the opposing team. Fenex is headed to Florida Institute of Technology this fall.
Rhian Silsley, Jr., North Caroline
A cover defender extraordinaire, Silsley posted eight takeaways and 28 groundballs, while helping on offense with seven goals and four assists.
Ethan MacGregor, Sr., Queen Anne's
MacGregor, off to Towson University where he intends to play club ice hockey, was a capable defender in the Lions' strong backfield, picking up 12 grounders.
Stephen Ruffennach, Jr., Kent Island
Ruffennach shifted regularly from middie to defense, the ProStart player finishing the season with 13 goals and 18 assists.
Bryan Heim, Jr., Kent Island
Heim won 148 of 238 faceoffs, sparking the Bucs' high-scoring offense with his prowess on the X. He also plays for ProStart.
Cole Messick, So., Saints Peter and Paul
The Sabres' specialist on the X, Messick an All-MIAA pick, won 82 percent of his faceoffs, while averaging 3.6 points per game, including a 10-point outburst against Gerstell Academy.
Lukas Nilsen, So., Easton
Nilsen, who played this summer for ProStart and Hardshells lacrosse, had an 8.66 goals-against average for the Warriors, saving shots at a stellar 77 percent clip.
Nathan Biddle, Sr., Saints Peter and Paul
Biddle was an All-MIAA selection for the Sabres and saved a spectacular 15 shots per game. He is headed to McDaniel College this fall.
William Colburn, Sr., Queen Anne's (41 goals, 10 assists, 15 groundballs).
Luke Stehle, Sr., Gunston (31 goals, 8 assists).
Kolby Walters, Jr., Kent County (35 goals, 10 assists, 38 groundballs).
Dawson Stitcher, Sr., Kent Island (30 goals, 11 assists).
Kyler Krewson, Fr., Saints Peter and Paul (27 goals, 36 assists).
Dajawan Jackson, Jr., Cambridge-SD (37 goals, 20 assists).
Rick Tubman, Sr., Kent Island (21 goals, 20 assists, headed to Salisbury University).
Zach Bramble, Fr., Easton (15 goals, 6 assists).
Gavin Jens, Jr., Queen Anne's (24 goals, 13 assists, 38 groundballs, verbal commitment to York (Pa.) College, Rock 2020 Lacrosse member, both Elite and National teams)
Tylante Wilson, So., Kent County (115 groundballs, second in Mid-Shore; 2019 team MVP).
Ethan Carmine, Sr., Cambridge-SD
Ryan Argo, Kent County (48 groundballs).
Jeremy Heath, So., Kent Island (USS Lacrosse member)
Joe Hickey, Jr., Easton (41 groundballs, 19 caused turnovers)
Brogan Stofa, Fr., Easton (short stick defender, 8 goals, 3 assists).
Mike Nickerson, Jr., Gunston (19 takeaways).
JoJo Ward, Jr., North Caroline (9.54 saves per game, 56 percent saves).
Colin Webb, Jr., Easton (76 percent wins on faceoffs, 63 groundballs).