SECTION IV BOYS LACROSSE CHAMPS FEEL STING OF MISSED OPPORTUNITY
(2020-06-02)BY TIM TAYLOR
Tioga County Sports Report
OWEGO — "It’s surely a year to remember for every senior and not in a good way."
That statement from Owego senior Cooper Phelps sums up the 2020 spring high school sports season for numerous athletes around the country who did not have an opportunity to end their high school careers in proper fashion.
Locally, the coronavirus pandemic hit Tioga County programs hard — costing several athletes and teams opportunities to repeat as Section IV champions.
For weeks, the Indians' boys lacrosse team was clinging to the slim hopes that their 2020 season would not be defeated by COVID-19. Unfortunately, the inevitable happened and Owego was denied an opportunity to defend its first-ever sectional title.
Even though the Indians sent two key contributors to the Division II ranks, the Section IV Class C champions had a "10-man ride" which was arguably loaded with more returning talent than any program in the county. The Indians' roster boasted 13 seniors — most of whom were expected to make key contributions. Phelps was one of them.
"When I heard that our season was canceled I was sick to my stomach," Phelps said. "We had so much talent — to be wasted with this 2020 team and to see it disappear in a blink of an eye is horrible."
"I was absolutely devastated, so many emotions came in at one time," senior Jozell Race said. "Coach (Andy) Race and I texted about our high hopes of the season not coming to an end. I personally thought it would get all sorted out and we would have a season. At one of the last practices coach said we might not be able to step on the field together the next day so we need to practice like it's our last practice and that really shocked everybody.
"When I first found out about COVID-19 ending our season I was in total shock," senior Cole Taylor added. "Never thought that my teammates and I would ever have to experience something like that, and very disappointing that it had to put our season championship to a stop."
Coach Race has been building the Owego program for several years, anticipating the day when the program would claim its first sectional championship. And the excitement surrounding the prospect of a repeat in 2020 was huge.
"For the past three years I have been saying that we were a 'young team.' Although we had great senior leaders in all of those years, the core of our guys were juniors and below," he said. "This was the first year since 2016 where the majority of our starters and standout players were seniors and returning veterans. Not that we don't have some great underclassmen in our program right now, but I think this year was really going to be a special team with the experience and talent we had coming back."
Not only was a possible repeat wiped about, but the opportunity to be involved in some potentially thrilling confrontations was lost as well. Section IV only has three Class C programs, but they're very competitive rivals.
"I know for a fact that Johnson City and Maine-Endwell both had strong teams this year, but if you ask me they got lucky not having to play us," coach Race said. "Our expectations had shifted from just getting to the playoffs to getting to the sectional championship and beyond."
Jozell Race was pumped about what the Indians would have brought to the field.
"We have a really great group of guys this year and a lot of talent spread throughout the whole entire field, especially the guys who came off the bench and played their butt off. The first week of practice we had was definitely the most productive first week of Owego lacrosse I ever have been a part of," he said. "By the end of the first week things were clicking, you know guys were getting along good, playing off each other like never before. We had some guys leave us last year, but 100-percent nothing had changed.
"I think we are still the same skill level as last year if not even better. Who knows how far we could've gone. Hats off to all the coaches and our staff putting this team together and making the decisions they make on the daily basis."
Likewise, Phelps and Taylor had big expectations for the 2020 season.
"My expectation this year was win the Section IV championship, but mostly I just wanted to be around the sport and my teammates that were more like brothers to me," Phelps said.
"My expectation this season was just like the rest of my seasons on varsity — to become champions, to win two sectional championships and possibly (go) further," Taylor said.
Owego posted a 10-7 overall record in 2019 and received an honorable mention in the New York State Sportswriters Association rankings. Four of the Indians' losses came against larger classification schools. They split regular-season games with JC and M-E before falling to second-ranked and eventual runner-up Jamesville-DeWitt in the state playoffs. J-D was also ranked 87th in the nation by insidelacrosse.com.
This year's Owego team included seniors Luke Maslin, second on the team in goals (33) and assists (30) last season, Taylor (31 goals, 12 assists), Ben Miller (23 goals in 13 games), face-off specialist Jozell Race (14 goals), Phelps (14 goals), Gio Fabi, Mike Wasyln, Giovanni Cavataio and Bryce Jones.
Senior Mason Pratt, a member of last year's squad, was going to miss this season due to surgery while classmate Cam Doane never got to play for Owego. He transferred in as a junior, but missed the 2019 campaign due to surgery. Other seniors include newcomer Koby Kozak, and Levi Stanton, who came back out after being the manager last year.
"Due to the quarantine I have lost my senior year of lacrosse," Doane said. "I was looking forward to being on the field this spring because last season I was injured and missed playing. I joined the OFA lacrosse team as a junior and I really enjoyed learning the game and being part of the first OFA lacrosse team to win sectionals.
"I feel a little cheated out of completing my senior year, however, I know it was done out of safety precautions. I miss playing sports, hanging out with my friends and attending school. But keeping my family safe and healthy means more to me than sports."
Although their season has been wiped out by COVID-19 also, juniors Justin Brown, Nick Wasyln and goalie Zach Miner (151 saves) are among those who are hoping to have a senior season in 2021.
Several of the 2020 seniors are moving on to play at the next level. Taylor is considering walking on at SUNY Morrisville. The Mustangs won their fifth North Eastern Athletic Conference straight title in 2019 to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Miller will play for 2019 NEAC regular season runner-up Keuka College, Maslin will compete for SUNY Oneonta, Doane is heading to Tompkins Cortland Community College and Jozell Race is currently undecided about where he will play.
Two other players, Mike Wasyln and Fabi, will be moving on to play football at SUNY Cortland and Ithaca College, respectively.
Other local team champions denied an opportunity to repeat as sectional champions included Tioga in Class C baseball, and Waverly in Class B softball and girls golf — all losing their top players to Division I programs in the process. The Tigers' Class D boys golf champs graduated three of their top six.
IN PHOTO 1: Owego coach Andy Race displays the lacrosse program's first sectional championship plaque. ... TCSR STOCK PHOTOS.
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