Before everyone went their own way for the summer two weeks ago, Paul VI High School lacrosse coach Rich Burns gathered his seniors together for one final time.
He wanted to show his appreciation for what they brought to the program, turning the Eagles into one of South Jersey’s best teams a year ago. He gave each of the recent graduates a few parting gifts: gift cards put together by the parents and personally-engraved Swiss Army knives, complete with names and numbers, that he had made for each of them.
Over the years, Paul VI’s players made a regular habit of asking Burns for his before each game to tighten their sticks. Going forward, their coach wants them to continue being prepared.
“I’m really going to miss these guys; this was my first class as head coach when they came in as freshman,” said Burns, who had been an assistant coach for five years prior to 2017.
“It would have been a memorable spring, to cap those four years.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, wiped out Paul VI’s spring season. While the seniors graduated last month feeling a little unfulfilled, unable to take the field in their final high school seasons, they had plenty to be proud of, too.
After finishing with a losing record in 2018, the Eagles reeled off a historic 2019 season. Paul VI blitzed through its 15-game regular season schedule without a loss before falling to Bergen Catholic in the playoffs.
How exactly does a team go from 8-9 to 15-1, capturing the first conference championship in school history?
“They grew into great team players and I think that’s what really made the difference,” Burns said. “They supported each other as teammates. They wanted the next guy to be just as successful, knowing that playing as a team would give them the best chance.”
A well-rounded team of upperclassmen and underclassmen, the Eagles’ talented junior class of 2019 was supposed to build off last year’s momentum and graduate with another championship season as seniors. But COVID-19 had other plans.
“Honestly it was pretty devastating,” said Jack Freeland, who led the Eagles in 2019 in both goals (41) and assists (34). “I can speak for all of our seniors: It’s all we really wanted, to play together one more time. I honestly feel like we would have had the same type of season if we played this year.
“There’s nothing you can do about it.”
“The expectations were the same: to try to repeat and try not to lose a game,” said Will Fagan, last year’s team leader in ground balls, with 79. “We all felt like we could do that. We felt like we were the best team.”
🥍🗣Shoutout to boys lax for winning the conference for the first time in school history!! With the win tonight they move to 10-0 on the year🥍 🗣#laxbros #daflockgocrazy #champs pic.twitter.com/N3JC3uOFzD
— DaFlock 19-20 (@DaFlock12) May 2, 2019
Although they can’t reclaim their lost senior seasons, Freeland and Fagan are fortunate they have the opportunity to continue their lacrosse careers in college and continue as teammates, too. Next month they’ll enroll at Gwynedd Mercy University, a Catholic college 30 miles north of Philadelphia.
“I’m excited about that. Jack’s a great guy and a great teammate,” Fagan said.
The two have known each other for a while, playing against each other in town leagues throughout middle school. In high school, they became friends and part of a close-knit group of athletes that decided to put Paul VI lacrosse on the map.
Freeland, a fleet-footed offensive player, and Fagan, a fearless, tireless defender, complemented each other on the field. Fellow Class of 2020 member Rob Kane showed off the class’s selflessness early, volunteering to play goalie for the JV team as a freshman when the team needed one for the season.
Paul Dunn, a key contributor as a sophomore, missed the team’s memorable junior year but shows the class’s perseverance in working his way back this winter to be ready for the team’s senior season that, unfortunately, never happened.
“They were all excited about it, they wanted to repeat,” Burns said. “It’s a bummer.”
Although they couldn’t build off of their junior season and make another run at a conference title, Paul VI’s lacrosse teammates can take a life lesson and more than a few lasting memories with them.
“You can’t take anything for granted, because you really never know what can happen,” Fagan said. “None of us obviously knew this virus was going to hit and literally have us lose everything at the end of the year.
“You just can’t take anything for granted.”
And even if their senior seasons were lost, the Eagles will always have the history they made together as juniors.
“Great coaching,” Fagan said of the key to the team’s turnaround from 2018 to 2019. “Our two coaches did a good job of giving us good plays and defensive schemes to help us win. And we had a great incoming class of freshmen who helped us, too.”
“Honestly I think it was the leadership, our seniors really wanted to win,” Freeland added. “We were tired of not winning. We wanted to change and saw an opportunity as a team. We had a young team, a couple of seniors that were big, but everyone did their part and we did a good job.”