West Forsyth’s girls lacrosse team never let it go. They never tried to, either.
The Wolverines underwent one of the best seasons in school history last year, and after a thrilling win over Johns Creek in the Elite Eight, they hosted Mill Creek for a chance at state championship berth in front of a large home crowd that they were excited to play in front of.
West lost that game 11-10, but coming up a point short of a chance at a state title wasn’t what stung the most. What did was the way the last seven minutes of the game went: The Hawks stalled, passed around and didn’t try to score, with the Wolverines not even getting a chance to tie it up. For them, it was a cheap ending to a season that had been so special.
“It was really frustrating, especially for the people that were just standing on the field and they couldn't do anything about it because they couldn't be on that side of the field,” junior Cami Merkel said. “(For) the people on the sideline, it was so frustrating because you couldn't help.
“You could just watch it all go down. You just saw people leave the stands because it was already over.”
And it hasn’t just been the players that look back to that May
afternoon. West’s first two games of the 2020 schedule are Johns Creek and Mill
Creek, and while the early season rematch with the Hawks on Wednesday was
cancelled due to poor field conditions, head coach Chris Kiefer and his staff
make sure to remind the players of what’s at stake.
“Definitely, the coaches bring it up a lot during practice,” Merkel said. “We do something and it's like, ‘You need to be able to do this or else the same thing's going to happen to you again.’”
With almost the same team in place as last year, the 2020 Wolverines have a realistic chance to get back to that point, and with 10 seniors returning, they’ll have plenty of experience to help get them there.
West’s best player isn’t one of those seniors, though. As a sophomore, Merkel logged 97 goals and 58 assists to become West’s single-season leader in points scored and the 2019 Forsyth County News Player of the Year.
“She's an unbelievable player,” Keifer said. “Her skills are top level — she's a Division I player, easy. And she's another year older, which means she's another year better. She's grown a lot as a player.”
Much of that growth came over the offseason, when Merkel, a Liberty commit, played the game at a national level, exposing herself to some of the best talent in the country.
“There's tons of kids out there, and there are tons of people that are way better than me,” Merkel said. “I just think watching people like (that), you've got to take bits and pieces from everything that you see to improve yourself.”
Defensively, the Wolverines look to be a stout unit, but even with a sparkplug like Merkel on offense, that unit still needs to gel together. Junior Maddie Houlberg, sophomore Jenna Burrow and senior Reagan Wawrek will be looking to keep West’s attack from becoming too one-dimensional.
“I think we just realized that we have to utilize everything we can,” Burrow said. “Cami can shoot all these goals and a lot of people can do a lot of things, but with (the offense) together I think we realized that we can do so much more and make so much more of an impact and have our whole team be a threat.”
At the midfield position, West will look to some younger talent, like freshman Noelle Kirley, who has already turned heads with her speed. On a team with depth at most positions, midfield might be the only one where that’s not the case.
“We're going to have to rely on (younger players) a little just because we're a little short at middie,” Kiefer said. “They're going to have to come in and they're going to have to give us meaningful minutes.”
For West, the goal for 2020 is clear. While the sour memories of last year are still fresh in the Wolverines’ minds, they hope looking back can put things in perspective for a brighter future.
“It makes us see the bigger picture,” Burrow said. “Yeah, it was kind of a rough ending, but I know for a fact that so many players have grown so much since then. I know we have all become such different players, but for the better.”