There’s something different in the air around South County’s boys lacrosse team these days. Confidence pours out of every stick bobbing alongside green and blue jerseys, an extra dose of swagger stemming from the team’s victory over Chantilly on April 22.
Coach Dale Nalls embraces his players’ newfound sense of invincibility, saying that 8-6 win over the defending state champions affirmed everyone’s belief in the process at hand. Two weeks later the Stallions are still undefeated, their 12-0 record making them the only unbeaten team in Virginia 6A.
Still, everyone on the South County sideline knows that nothing tangible has yet been gained this year. A midseason win over a powerful opponent can instill pride, but it can’t reap satisfaction.
“We have a bigger mission at hand,” Nalls said.
State championship aspirations don’t typically go hand-in-hand with new coaches, nor do they usually jell with programs that have never graced a state tournament, let alone a championship. But those are exactly the expectations Nalls and his longtime assistant, Bill Russ, have for a program that has risen steadily from district afterthought to state contender over the last four years.
Nalls arrived at South County this year after taking the 2013 season off following the birth of his first child. Prior to that he coached for 18 years at Mount Vernon High, where Russ coached for 17 years alongside him before taking over the head job last season. The duo now finds themselves in charge of a program that experienced its first winning season in 2012, followed by its first Patriot District championship last season.
Nalls and Russ were pleased to join a team that was already well into its preparation for this season before the coaches even got there. Players and parents helped orchestrate offseason workouts that coincided with a commitment to competition at the club level. South County’s football coaches continue to run the lacrosse team’s weightlifting sessions.
“It is an amazing place to work because of the community,” Nalls said. “The parents are so involved, and everybody works hard. It’s not just 31 guys and a handful of coaches; it’s an entire community that’s winning these games. I believe the people in this community want our program to succeed and become an elite-level program, and they’re willing to do the work to make that happen.”
This year’s success isn’t only due to coaches falling into a beautiful situation. Nalls and Russ have implemented a next-man-up philosophy that places equal emphasis on players up and down the 30-man roster. Coaches refuse to let their players get comfortable in practice, instead opting to challenge them to sharpen all the overlooked aspects of their game. A great takeaway defender is challenged to master the art of clearing the ball, just as someone who can shoot 80 miles per hour right-handed is challenged to do the same left-handed.
“It’s the team cohesion and it’s the development of depth,” Russ said. “So many teams focus on 10 to 13 players and make them studs and their 14th player gets forgotten about. We make sure every kid gets involved.”
Nalls and Russ can be tough on their guys — and on each other — in practice, but players take comfort in relating to them on and off the field.
“[Coach Nalls] is never satisfied with our play. He’s always trying to make us better,” junior midfielder Kevin Quigley said. “I’ve always felt like he’s kind of like a coach-player. You can talk to him and he’s very open to suggestions.”
Quigley, a Bryant University commit, has joined his football teammate, David Symmes, to create one of the most formidable midfield tandems in the area. Their chemistry on the lacrosse field extends from their time together on the gridiron, where Symmes tossed passes to Quigley on the team that nearly knocked off Centreville in last fall’s region semifinal. The two lead the lacrosse team in assists this spring, while Symmes leads Conference 7 with 32 goals heading into Wednesday’s game against Robinson this week.
“Just like in football you can look out of the corner of your eye and sort of sign something to him, and he’ll run a certain route,” said Symmes, who will play lacrosse at West Point next year. “I’ll look off a defender and he’ll cut right behind him. You can play a two-man game with it to sort of isolate people.”
With the postseason about a week away, Symmes and company will need to build on their chemistry as the degree of difficulty mounts with each passing opponent.
“You have to be able to expand your role as the season goes on to be a more complete player,” Nalls said. “Now we can kind of open up the playbook more and be a little more creative. We can allow them to play lacrosse the way they want to play within a framework that challenges them to be better than what they thought they could be.”