First Flight lacrosse grabs 3A Eastern title; falls short in state championship

Published 5:44 pm Thursday, May 26, 2022

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First Flight’s red hot men’s lacrosse team captured the Eastern Regional 3A Championship with a win over Orange last week, but fell short in the state title match losing to Lake Norman Charter 19 to 5 in Cary on Friday night.

The Nighthawks had their best season to date, 12 – 3 overall, charging through the conference games undefeated and then going 4-1 in the playoffs. Coach John Van Lunen said his guys should be proud of what they accomplished this season despite the loss to Lake Norman.

Although First Flight graduates eight seniors, a healthy feeder team at the First Flight Middle School coached by former ’Hawks player Jordan Lane keeps pumping experienced athletes into the high school ranks.

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And given that Van Lunen only started the initial club – Outer Banks Lacrosse (OBX LAX) – in 2005, things are going in the right direction for this varsity program formed in 2010. In general, the sport is also growing rapidly across the Tar Heel state.

He said claiming the Eastern Regional title was big.

“Hey, we are the best team in the east side of North Carolina,” he said Monday. “We looked really good [against Orange].

“We were a number two, they were a one, so we upset them,” Van Lunen said.

The hard fought, competitive match last Tuesday in Hillsborough left the Nighthawks a bit fatigued headed into Friday’s match. It meant another long drive – to Cary – but they did get chartered buses for each run, he noted.

So, under the lights on a hot, beautiful evening on a bright green field at the WakeMed Soccer Park, the game kicked off with some solid, aggressive play from the ’Hawks. The Knights seemed a bit surprised when First Flight rang up a couple of quick goals.

Senior captain Nick Gardill was putting some serious heat on the ball and he scored. Dylan “D.B.” Byard launched an early shot that was barely saved. He also had numerous clears running from end to end.

Cam Van Lunen had an early shot bounce off the goal pipe. The close defenseman was in with a short stick on the extra man offense, or EMO.

“Cam nearly scored even though he’s a starting defenseman!” the coach said about his son.

“Jacob Gray had some good looks – he was on fire in the playoffs,” relayed the coach.

Slowly but surely however, spectators could see the First Flight guys were slowing down. Before long, Lake Norman had picked up a couple of goals and there was a definite momentum shift in their favor.

“We had ignored the physical part of it,” said John Van Lunen. “I could tell in the first half, we were running on fumes a little bit.

“We showed them we could compete with them, but it was just unsustainable because of fatigue,” he said.

The half ended 4-3. In the third quarter, the Knights kept pressuring the goal and getting off shots. Despite efforts by Gardill with four goals and Gray with one, the Nighthawks just couldn’t keep up.

Both teams battled to the end but a flurry of late goals by Lake Norman pushed it to 19-5. Their faceoff guy was unstoppable.

Former Nighthawks coach Rob Nichols said the accomplishments realized this year were a long time in the making.

“I’m not surprised we made it to the finals,” he said Monday. “With all the time John Van Lunen has put into developing this culture . . . I see it developing even more in the future.”

Getting charter buses and competing in both the semi and final matches were all firsts for First Flight. They were also undefeated in the conference.

So, after the game, the veteran coach, who knows the agony of defeat from his own sports career as a younger man, told the guys to keep their heads up. They were the second best in the state.

“I’ve been there as a player and no, it’s not fun,” said the coach. “But you shouldn’t let that eat at you for weeks or months.

“We were one of the two best teams and that’s kinda a big deal,” he added.

And to his credit, coach John acknowledged the help he’s getting from Lane and the middle schoolers.

“The big thing why we’re having success right now is Jordan Lane and the middle school program,” he noted. “He chose not to go to college, he works locally, so this is his thing, his focus.”

The Nighthawks are also coached by Dave Sybert, Clark McCloud and volunteer Greg Gardill. Rob Robinson and Lane helped with the scorebook all season and OBX LAX original coach Rob Rollason showed up to call the final home game against Croatan.

Also making the squad this year were seniors Jake May, Jackson Kelly, Joey Kreig, Braden Buckler, Porter Smith and Benicio Garcia-Agresto; juniors Elijah Swain, Will Robinson and Brody Wild; sophomores Jameson Summerton, Luke Rubino, Cooper Kresicki, Bert Waddington, Layne Szalkiewicz and freshmen Caleb Jones, Peyton Kelly, Dresden Jackson, Nathan Tsonev, Tony Yetzer, Cody Keller, Lucas Cook, Chase Reed, Joseph Wagner, Joshua Peters and Cooper Hill.