CARY – Winning a state championship on a shot with one second left is something that most players dream about.
For Apex seniors Derek Sweet and Luke Sieber, it was simply part of the plan.
Sweet netted a goal off a nifty assist from Sieber with one second remaining to lift Apex to a thrilling 12-11 victory against Lake Norman on Saturday in the N.C. High School Athletic Association lacrosse championship game at WakeMed Soccer Park.
The stunning goal put the final punctuation on an emotional contest that featured an array of big plays, hard hits and wild momentum swings.
The win marked the first NCHSAA lacrosse title for the Cougars (20-2) and dashed the hopes for back-to-back championships by Lake Norman (20-4).
To win a state crown in such dramatic fashion left Apex players seemingly as stunned as they were jubilant.
“When Derek scored I was thinking, ‘Did that happen? Did that actually just happen?’” said Sieber. “It’s surreal. That is the word (junior defenseman) Bobby Salpietro used and that is the only way to describe it. Four years ago, we began working toward something. Finally, on the last day and in the last second, we did it. It feels so amazing.”
“I don’t know, it’s just crazy,” said Sweet. “It is something you dream about. It really couldn’t have been more perfect.”
Incredibly, the last-second heroics were exactly as Apex planned it.
Sieber, Apex’s leading scorer, would take the ball toward the net and draw the defenders to him. He would then pass to a wide open Sweet, the team’s second-leading scorer, who would put the ball in the net.
“It is something we work on a lot in practice with those two,” said Cougars coach John Hayden. “We scored on it earlier. These two know where each other are all the time. It worked to perfection and we had just the right amount of time to pull it off.”
Following the final timeout with seven seconds remaining, Sweet told his good friend Sieber that he would be uncovered and ready to score the winning goal.
The statement proved most prophetic.
“Coming out of the huddle he said, ‘You know, they are going to double you and that backside is going to be wide open and I’m going to pop right back and catch it,’” said Sieber. “I said, ‘Hey, let’s give it a try.’ We’ve done it a couple of times this season. It’s worked a few times and a few times it didn’t. Today, it just came to us and worked.”
“We pretty much drew that play up at practice a while ago,” said Sweet. “We were joking around about what would happen if we only had five seconds left. I just kind of knew the two defenders would go to Luke. I said if you are open you better rip that sucker in. If you’re not open, I’m probably (open) at that back pipe. Sure enough, it was right there, man.”
It seemed improbable throughout the first half that Apex would eventually have the opportunity for a game-winning shot.
The Cougars held an early 2-1 lead following goals by Sweet and Sieber. But the Wildcats turned up the defensive pressure and left Apex bewildered on offense.
Forced into uncharacteristic turnovers and errant shots, the Cougars were held scoreless for nearly a 17-minute span.
Powered by a pair of goals from both Austin Grassey and Bryan Gibson, Lake Norman built a 7-2 advantage late in the first half.
“They gave us a lot of pressure and we didn’t handle it well,” said Hayden. “We were never really comfortable with the ball in the first half. That’s not good against a team like Lake Norman. We knew they were good in transition and they were hurting us off the turnovers.”
Sieber broke the Cougars’ lengthy cold spell with an unassisted goal at the 1:03 mark of the second stanza that cut the deficit to 7-3 heading into intermission.
Having trailed in its two previous playoff games, Apex wasn’t ready to hit the panic button.
“We told each other at halftime that’s it’s not over and we’ve done this before,” said Cougars junior Colby Lalicker. “We just had to keep believing that anything can happen.”
“At halftime it was just ‘play the game’ and ‘keep your head up,’” said Apex goalie Tyler Nesbitt, who was named MVP of the contest. “You just gotta play the game. We get down all the time and you just have to play the game and get right back up. Once you start scoring a few goals you just have to keep it going.”
A quick goal by Grassey gave Lake Norman a seemingly comfortable 8-3 cushion at the 10:11 mark of the third quarter.
But Apex began its comeback in earnest as Lalicker, Sweet and senior Ryan Sullivan all scored to trim the margin to 8-6 with 3:46 left in the third stanza.
“I wish I could take credit for some great halftime speech but the kids just busted it,” said Hayden. “It was more effort than Xs and Os in the second half. We started to get some possessions and we started to settle down. We just had the ball more and we started getting looks at the goal.”
The Wildcats’ Eddie Hendrickson regained some of his squad’s lost momentum with an unassisted goal that rebuilt the lead to 9-6.
But Sullivan answered less than two minutes later for a 9-7 deficit heading into the final stanza.
“We just weren’t playing our game on offense, which led to some struggles on defense,” said Sweet. “Then we all settled down. We trust each other and we all knew if we stuck to our game plan and began possessing the ball our problems would stop. That’s exactly what happened. Slowly, we started chipping away.”
Lalicker trimmed the margin to 9-8 with an amazing shot that left a Lake Norman defender slamming his stick off the turf in frustration.
The goal, coming off a great spin move, electrified the Cougars bench along with the large heavily pro-Apex crowd.
“Honestly, I just saw a net and fired,” said Lalicker. “I was hoping for the best. Then our sidelines went crazy, everyone was going crazy and there was just so much energy. We could feel it.”
Just 84 seconds later, Sweet knotted the game at 9-9.
“Against (Cardinal) Gibbons we were down three goals and came back and against East Chapel Hill we went down two and came back,” said Sweet. “So I wasn’t worried or anything. But once we tied the game up I knew right then we had it.”
Hendrickson breathed life back into Lake Norman one minute later with an impressive running shot that found the back of the net and gave the defending champions a 10-9 lead.
But Lalicker answered a mere 35 seconds later to retie the game and Sullivan scored at the 3:10 mark for an 11-10 lead.
The Wildcats displayed their own heroics as Hendrickson scored off a feed from Grassey to tie the game at 11-11 with just 1:02 remaining.
The teams traded turnovers in the final minute before the Sieber-Sweet connection sent Apex into a wild celebration.
“It’s just one of those bang-bang plays,” said Lake Norman coach James Brugger. “Those two guys have been playing together for a long time and they act as one. I thought (they) would get to us early but (they) got to us at the wrong time. They are great players, those two.
“On that last timeout, maybe I should have done something better. It was a big moment and I got out-coached. It’s not the kids’ fault.”
Amidst a group of celebrating players, Lalicker said he felt sure that he just experienced the kind of game that only occurs once in a great while.
“I can’t put it into words,” said Lalicker. “It’s amazing. I’m only a junior but this can never happen again. This is a once in a lifetime thing. It’s just awesome.”