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Paglia: Special senior group helps Lambert boys lacrosse finish on top
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Lambert senior Justyn Jean-Felix celebrates after the Longhorns' 6-3 victory against Lassiter in the Class AAAAAA championship Saturday. - photo by Micah Green

Expectations can be a heavy burden, and Lambert director of lacrosse Rich Wehman knew they would be for this year’s Longhorns team.

Despite the heartbreak of a first-round playoff exit last season, Lambert had a team returning with the potential to be a powerhouse: a dominant faceoff specialist, potent attackmen, versatile middies, imposing defenders and a talented goalie.

Building up to the season, Wehman heard chatter of an anointing of the Longhorns as Class AAAAAA’s “team to beat” and he worried.

“That can be bad if you don’t handle it the right way,” Wehman said. “We spent a lot of time talking about that as a team, and it was up to the seniors to make sure that that leadership was there so it didn’t happen.”

Consider Saturday his answer, a 6-3 victory against Lassiter in the Class AAAAAA championship for Lambert’s third state title in program history with influence from start to finish by the Longhorns’ seniors – and eight in particular with the deepest of bonds.

They first met in 2011, shy seventh graders turned teammates on the Junior Longhorns, a Lambert youth feeder team: Trey Arnold, Hayden Barnes, Brady Berman, Hunter Clem, Justyn Jean-Felix, Conrad McEvoy, Chris Price and Ben Stump.

They quickly overcame their unfamiliarity, going 21-0 and winning the state championship in the Metro Atlanta Youth Lacrosse Association. They went back to the state championship the falling year as eighth graders but lost, finishing 20-1.

When the group entered Lambert as freshmen, the Longhorns were coming off back-to-back Class A-AAAAA state titles. One of their own seemed like only a matter of time.

Instead, they mostly observed as the Longhorns lost to Centennial in the 2013 state championship. Several in the group were impact players as when Lambert lost to Roswell in the state championship the next season.

Last year was supposed to be the one.

Instead, they fell in overtime at Pope in the first round.

“Everyone thinks that since we’re Lambert it’s just automatic. But it’s really not,” Price said. “We work our tails off all the time. Come to practice, just run, get yelled at sometimes. We’re not just automatic. It’s hard work.”

So with one last chance upon them this season, the group worked like never before to remarkable results, navigating a grueling schedule without a loss, gripping the No. 1 ranking for most of the season, until there was only Saturday and Lassiter in the way.

Each player made their mark from the very start. Arnold won the opening faceoff and the majority of them thereafter. Barnes scored 46 seconds into the game to give Lambert the early lead. Clem added to it soon after to go up 2-0. McEvoy scored the Longhorns’ lone goal in the third quarter for a 5-1 lead. Berman, Jean-Felix and Price directed a defense that yielded just one goal up until the final few minutes, while Stump made 10 saves.

As visiting students poured on to the Lambert team celebration on one end of the field, a gaggle of young kids immediately went to the other end. That was not their moment to share. That was for Arnold and Barnes and Berman and Clem and Jean-Felix and McEvoy and Price and Stump to savor before they go off to college careers, some intertwining as future teammates or opponents.

The kids hovered around that moment, shooting and passing and defending on the same net Lassiter’s goalie had occupied just a minute before. Who could blame them for trying to get in a little extra practice? On Sunday, the day after Lambert’s state title victory, the Junior Longhorns were at it again - both the seventh and eighth grade teams played in the MAYLA state championships, just like Arnold, Barnes and company.

“Isn’t that something,” Wehman said.

No, judging by Saturday’s result, it’s simply frightening for Lambert’s future opponents.