This is the stretch run for Pinecrest Academy’s boys and girls lacrosse teams. The girls team has already made some history, securing a state playoff spot for the first time. The boys team is one win away from accomplishing the same feat.
Both have more work to do though, and by one measure, at least, the odds are stacked against them.
See, on Pinecrest’s campus there are 285 high school students, according to the Georgia High School Association’s numbers used during its most recent reclassification. That’s pretty typical for a Class 1A school.
But the Paladins don’t play in Class 1A in lacrosse. The sport’s popularity is still growing in Georgia, but there aren’t enough high school programs to have state tournaments for each of the GHSA’s seven classifications. So there are two classifications for lacrosse – one for 6A and 7A, and another for 1A through 5A. Which means the Paladins compete in Area 3-1/5A along with schools like Greater Atlanta Christian (736 students), Blessed Trinity (978) and Buford (1299).
Plenty of factors go in to a high school athletic program’s success, but conventional wisdom says the larger a school, the more potential it has to be competitive in any given sport, particularly team sports. More students equal more athletes. That concept was one of the driving forces behind the GHSA creating a seventh classification.
That hasn’t mattered much for Pinecrest this season, which says something about how much more the sport has to grow in Georgia, but also about how quickly the Paladins have established success.
The Paladins girls are 10-3 overall and 3-1 in their area. The largest school they’ve defeated this season is Cherokee, population 2,543.
The Paladins boys are 10-2 overall and 3-1 in their area. They largest school they’ve defeated is North Forsyth, population 2,415.
“It’s a challenge for them,” boys head coach Pat Aiello said. “They love that challenge. They’ve learned over the last two years we’re going to play schools that have a lot higher numbers than us. … They’ve stepped up to the plate and really delivered.”
Started three and four years ago, both programs are still in their infancy, but they have a mixture of experience and talent that belies their brief histories.
The boys are led by seniors Jack Binkley, Wills Brown, Carson Holler and Hendrix College commit Jimmy O’Day, but that team is also getting contributions from the likes of Robert Binkley, Ryan DiFazio, Colin Spillane, David Stubbs and sophomore goalkeeper Drew Hendren.
Aiello put an extra emphasis on conditioning leading up to the season, and that, combined with another year of experience, has helped in comeback wins against Fellowship Christian and North.
“If this was the team from last year, we wouldn’t have been able to come back,” Aiello said. “… They’re not afraid to be down, because they know that they’ve been there.”
The girls are led by college commits Molly Dankowski (Mercer), Sarah DiFazio (Randolph Macon) and Haley Jones (Occidental) but also rely on middie Nika Brown and seniors Annie Reilly and Marioana Bohn.
The group came within one game – and one goal – of reaching the state playoffs last season, and their experience has helped overcome the loss of junior attack Alex Tilkin to an ACL injury during basketball season.
“The girls have hung tough,” Pinecrest girls head coach Jillian DiFazio said. “We’ve had other girls step into different roles to make this happen. Everybody has supported that and risen to the challenge. That has been amazing to see.”
But Aiello and DiFazio also help explain Pinecrest’s success against bigger schools. They are lacrosse purists, both former high school and college players and now high school coaches. That’s not as rare as it used to be among Georgia lacrosse teams when the sport just started catching on, but it’s rare enough. Some schools still make do with coaches who don’t have lacrosse in their background.
“You can take a basketball coach and put them out there and teach some skills,” DiFazio said, “but the ins and outs of the game, they don’t have that.”
So the boys have three area games left, needing one win to secure a state playoff spot. They’ll face Buford (1,299), Greater Atlanta Christian (736) and Wesleyan (483). The girls have two games left to improve their playoff seed. They’ll face Holy Innocents (520) and Wesleyan.
In terms of resources, they are underdogs.
But that’s not how Pinecrest sees it anymore.
“To us, it’s just motivating,” Aiello said. “We want to beat the biggest schools. It’s a challenge. It’s our nine versus their nine.”