From the outside looking in, it might be difficult to appreciate the strides made by the Highland boys lacrosse team in recent months.
Following a 22-0 loss in the first round of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 3 tournament against top-seeded Shawnee, the Tartans made the trek back to Blackwood having made history as the first team in program history to qualify for the tournament. Doing so, said first-year head coach Ethan Casey, was a goal of his when he took over the program.
“It was something that we marked down in the coach’s office and we made sure that the schedule we handed out to the team included when the first round of the playoffs were, because that’s where we expected to be,” he said. “We’re here for a reason … and that’s to try and win and rebuild the culture.”
Casey was named head coach in January, rather late in terms of when you might expect a team and its coaches to comfortably prepare for a spring sport. Having just finished another season as the head coach of the Gloucester City girls basketball team in the winter, Casey was no stranger to the coaching world, yet he was admittedly unfamiliar with lacrosse. He took the job to ensure the student-athletes’ season wasn’t unfairly canceled due to the lack of a head coach.
Casey’s mostly basketball background initially helped in getting what is largely a new team used to the sport as a whole.
“Growing up I only ever played youth lacrosse, so it’s been a pretty big learning adjustment for myself and a lot of the guys as well,” he said. “Much of my defensive philosophy comes from basketball, which is an entirely different sport, so it’s been a lot of working with the guys and talking after each game about what they think is and isn’t working.
“About half of our team are first-year players,’’ Casey added, “so we were really raw at first. It’s been a lot of learning all around for us … but getting to be a playoff team this season I think is big for us.”
Tyler Eahart, one of the team’s seniors, said he recognized going into the season that there were many unknowns about the initial makeup of the team. But he and his teammates continued to push each other every day to make the season as successful as possible.
“It really felt like a brand new team at first; we had a new coaching staff and a lot of newer guys, but we had the drive the entire season to make it as far as we did regardless of any of that,” Earhart said. “We’ve been determined to make it this far.”
Before the announcement that Casey would head the program, many of the team’s players – such as junior Aaron Gansky – were more than aware their season could be lost if the role wasn’t filled. That possibility was frustrating, but Gansky is thankful his coach signed on and got the team where it is now.
Looking ahead, he hopes that was a stepping stone toward bigger and brighter things to come.
“It was pretty stressful there for a while, because we didn’t even know if we’d have a season or not for a bit there,” Gansky said. “We put in the work and were able to make it to the playoffs this year. Hopefully we can do the same next year.”
According to Casey, the team sits just nine away from the program record for goals in a year following the postseason game against Shawnee. The Tartans also sit just two wins away from tying the program record for wins in a season. Highland currently has four games remaining in its 2021-’22 season.
Casey said he plans to return as the program’s coach next season, and he hopes the Tartans’ record-breaking season this spring will lead to even greater success next year..
“Hopefully all that does some things for recruiting in the hallways and getting more kids in the program, because we were a little small this year,” he added. “We’re a playoff-caliber team and that should say something about who we are and hopefully moving forward.”