It’s not like St. Thomas More’s lacrosse program was new to the sport when Tyler Gray took it over prior to the 2013 season.
After all, the Cougars reached the semifinal level last season and won the state title two years running prior to the 2012 campaign.
It was, however, new to the style of play Gray brought with him.
Gray’s approach, however, was not only to implement a new system, but also play as many games as possible to help his Cougars learn it.
After playing 13 regular season games last year, this year’s Cougars will bring a 13-11 record into this weekend’s state tournament hosted by St. Thomas More.
The Cougars, the No. 2 seed from the state’s West Division, will take on the East’s No. 1 seed St. Paul’s of Covington at 7 p.m. Saturday in the second semifinal.
The first one will be Jesuit of New Orleans against Loyola Prep of Shreveport at 4 p.m. Saturday. The finals will be at 2 p.m. Sunday.
“I had coached three STM kids in a summer club team,” said Gray, who played Division III lacrosse at Denison in Granville, Ohio and then coached at both Jesuit and Brother Martin before being recruited to take over for Mike Guidroz prior to this season.
“There’s no question that STM has some phenomenal athletes. We just had some inexperienced players and some inexperienced players in terms of lacrosse IQ.”
In addition to playing more games, Gray’s new approach involved more substituting.
“It’s not a matter of either way being wrong or right,” said Gray, who said this year’s team focused more on stick skills than pure athletic ability. “It’s just more of the way I played in college.”
The Cougars, though, began to turn the corner during a midseason game against Catholic High of Baton Rouge. Down 5-3, STM fought back to win 6-5. Ironically, it was that same Catholic High team that STM defeated 10-8 in the first round of this year’s playoffs to advance to the state tournament.
“That was big, because the kids kept their composure and stuck with the gameplan and was able to grind it out,” Gray said.
Since then, the progress has been evident. The team is led by senior attackman with 35 assists in John Michael Bernard, as well as three midfielders in junior Luke Robideaux, senior Manny Duhon and sophomore Cade Price.
“The three midfielders have combined for over 120 goals,” Gray said. “They were a real force and John Michael fed them real well. Manny is great in one-on-one situations, Luke is a great shooter from outside and Cade is dominant in the crease.”
First-year starting goalkeeper Austin Ladd has also played a key role.
“He’s made excellent strides,” Gray said. “He’s just gotten better athletically in every game.”
Making Ladd’s life easier are senior defensive leaders Morgan Vosberg and Steele Becnel.
The Cougars, though, are expected to have their hands full with St. Paul’s on Saturday. The Wolves are 14-1 on the season with no losses against Louisiana teams. St. Paul’s is coached by Austin Speni, who coaches summer club ball with Gray.
The two teams met twice this season with St. Paul’s winning 17-0 and then 8-4 in the rematch.
“They have a very similar style,” Gray said. “He’s been coaching there longer.
“There are two reasons why we played better against them in the second game. One, the leadership on this team has continued to get better in terms of composure and two, our defense has gotten better.”
While STM is a big underdog, Gray said the Loyola-Jesuit game looks evenly matched going in.
“We’ve got to possess the ball,” Gray said. “St. Paul’s has some phenomenal athletes. If we don’t possess the ball and make smart decisions, they’re going to run right through us in transition.”