Playing the Game

Weddington boys lacrosse team hopes to improve on last year’s breakthrough season

by Aaron Garcia

The Weddington High School boys lacrosse team is led by (from left) Mark Collins, Cam Roten, first-year coach Erik Gundersen and Connor Kennedy. (Aaron Garcia/UCW photo)

When you initially meet first-year Weddington boys lacrosse coach Erik Gundersen, his love for the sport shines through so much that it appears to be in his blood. As he paces the middle of the Warriors’ practice field behind the school’s football stadium, Gundersen’s thick northern accent slices through the brisk March air and bellows out at the 40-plus players running drills on the field. He certainly looks the part: wind jacket, hat pulled low and lacrosse stick in hand.

But Gundersen doesn’t simply appear to be a worthy replacement for last year’s coach, Mark Burnam, who led the Warriors to the state quarterfinals and an 11-5 record before leaving to begin the program at Charlotte Christian this spring.

After working as a Warriors’ assistant coach last year, Gundersen takes the reins after a 15-year career as an assistant in his native Carthage, N.Y., where he instructed 15 high school all-Americans, including brothers Mikey, Casey and Ryan Powell, who each starred at Syracuse University and are widely believed to be three of the best American lacrosse players of all time.

And that’s exactly why Gundersen knows that, for his team to succeed this season and perhaps even take the next step in what has become a strong-though-brief program history, the Warriors need to attack the sport of lacrosse itself.

“It doesn’t matter to us who is on the other side of the field – we’re looking to play the perfect game,” Gundersen said. “That’s what we’re trying to get to, and that’s what I’m trying to preach to these guys: It’s not about who we’re playing – we’re playing against the game of lacrosse.”

Gundersen’s game is won and lost in the details, he explained. The opponent? Lacrosse itself, as Gundersen has pointed out. The opponent’s players? The small details of the game, such as accurate passing, offensive progressions, an attacking defense. Before his team can worry about other players on other squads, it needs to focus on how it attacks the game.

“We’re trying to do it the right way, Gundersen said. “I’m a disciplined guy, I believe in it. I believe in doing all the little things to get to the big things. I might be wrong, but that’s my philosophy. That’s how I was raised.”

For Gundersen, that has meant beginning with the basics, regardless of how elementary they seem. When practice begins, he insists that players are on time – which means 15 minutes early – with their helmets on, mouth guards in and chinstraps fastened.

“When I say something, I’m going to do it,” Gundersen said. “If I expect it and they don’t do it, there’s going to be a consequence. Well, it took them about 15 minutes to figure that one out.”

So far, said senior captain Connor Kennedy, the Warriors have reveled in the change of pace.

“Everyone is more aware of what they say and how they play,” he said. “When you come to practice, you just practice. You don’t need to be doing anything else.”

And when the players don’t follow the rules, they run, which has had its own benefits, said senior defender and captain Mark Collins.

“We’re in the best shape we’ve ever been in,” Collins said with a laugh. “I like the discipline a lot.”

Gundersen hopes the new approach pays off in production, especially in the absence of last year’s star, Brad Burnam, the former coach’s son. In his three years as a starter at Weddington, Brad Burnam was simply one of the top players in the nation. Last year alone, he tallied 67 goals and 53 assists for a per-game average of 7.5 points.

Though Brad Burnam – along with his all-American defender brother, Tyler – has left to spend a year at a prep school before joining a college program next season, the cupboard is hardly bare, especially with the return of Kennedy, who was second on the team in both goals (55) and assists (33), making him an offensive juggernaut in his own right.

But Gundersen hopes not to rely on just one player to spark the offense. Instead, he said the team’s attack will be more plodding and deliberate. He wants the ball to move around the field until opposing defenses give away an advantage.

“It’s a totally different philosophy we’re going to have this year – the ball’s not going to be in one person’s stick,” Gundersen said. “We’ve got some capable guys, so I look forward to a different type of offense.

“I think they’ve bought into it pretty well,” Gundersen continued. “It’s less thinking now for them. They just have to react.”

The change has also kept the players from dwelling on exactly what they lost from last year.

“I haven’t heard (them say they wish Brad was here to lead the team) yet, which is a good thing,” Gundersen said. “That shows we’ve moved on. It’s not about trying to rebuild – we’re just reloading.”

Added senior captain and midfielder Cam Roten: “We’re just focusing on the small things, which has helped us not worry about losing two all-Americans, or anything of that nature.”

But there has been a sticking point, and it’s come in the form of a uniform change.

When Gundersen first addressed the team before the season began, he outlined the new rules and expectations, one of which was that the players begin wearing white, knee-high socks with their uniform shorts. It’s a little touch, but an important one, said the coach. It engenders uniformity and fosters the Weddington lacrosse brand, he hopes.

But it met resistance from the players.

“When he brought it up, everyone hated it and didn’t want to do it,” said Kennedy. “But as the game came along, we realized it was kind of cool. It’s like a ritual now. If we start winning, we’ll be known as the tam with the high socks and not just that team. We’ll have something to be known for.”

As with everything else, it’s a small detail. But Gundersen, and the team, thinks it can lead to bigger returns.

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