As it progressed further in the postseason each of the past three years, the DeSales High School boys lacrosse team always had an opponent in its sights.
Now that the Stallions are the defending Division II state champions, life at the top -- one that will be lived without 14 players from last season who graduated -- brings unique challenges and a different mindset.
"It's awesome, but this is a new team to play with," said senior attacker J.T. Blubaugh, an Ohio State signee who had 66 goals and 21 assists last year and was named first-team all-region, all-state and All-America. "The climate of the team is entirely different than since I've been playing here. It's kind of exciting to see what that first game will bring and how new people are going to react to new challenges."
The Stallions, who open Wednesday, April 3, at home against Wellington, defeated Rocky River 8-6 in the state final a year ago on the heels of advancing to a regional semifinal in 2010 and a regional final in 2011. But most of the top players from last season, in which DeSales finished 17-1, are gone.
Forward Anthony Ciammaichella, who had 54 goals and 20 assists and was named first-team all-region, all-state and All-America last season, now plays at Marquette University. Also among the graduates were Tyler McClary, who was named state Goalkeeper of the Year last season; Matt Young, who was state Defender of the Year; and Ross Wanner, who was state Specialist of the Year.
"We have an entirely brand-new team, so we don't even try to pretend like we're the same team we were last year," ninth-year coach Matthew Triplet said. "I don't necessarily think that last year's team is the one that we want to aspire to be from an Xs and Os standpoint. But in terms of the sense of family they had and the sense of brotherhood, we absolutely want to be just like that team."
Among the expected key players are seniors Matt Chadwick (attacker), Alex Musci (midfielder) and Roman Zingarelli (midfielder), juniors Ben Dumm (goalie), Austin Jackson (defender) and Tucker Yinger (midfielder) and sophomore Drew Selegue (attacker).
Jackson is a transfer from Dublin Jerome, which was the Division I state runner-up last year.
DeSales, which plays an independent schedule, cruised through the first three rounds of the postseason last year, defeating Granville 17-1, Bexley 19-5 and Kent Roosevelt 21-9 in the Central Region final, before beating Cincinnati Indian Hill 9-7 in a state semifinal.
Two days before the state final, Blubaugh had an emergency appendectomy.
"We want to jell as a team like last year emotionally and (get) to the point where all the guys know where their teammates are on the field," Triplet said. "Then the record is going to take care of itself."
Girls lacrosse coach hoping trend continues
Third-year girls lacrosse coach Joe Finotti saw his team improve from five wins in 2011 to eight last season, and he's optimistic that the Stallions are on track to have even more wins this season after finishing 8-8-1 overall and 2-5 in the Central Independent League a year ago.
DeSales ended last season with a 12-7 loss to Cincinnati Mother of Mercy in the first round of the Division II South/Central Region tournament.
"We are more advanced in skills from last year, which is a huge plus," said Finotti, whose team opened against Hartley on March 26 in a CIL game. "We're still installing offenses and defenses and getting used to that, but the girls are starting to jell together and come together as a team. I'm pleasantly surprised."
Finotti believes that improvement comes from a combination of increased offseason work and several years of playing together.
"I think a lot of it is these girls having played with each other for two, three or four years," he said. "They've gotten to know the teammates on their right and on their left and how to react and help each other, especially on defense."
Senior attacker Paige Plesich, a Wheeling Jesuit University signee, had 22 goals through five games last year before suffering a season-ending injury.
Senior attacker Katie Moody, a Walsh University recruit, had 10 goals as DeSales placed sixth in the CIL, behind Columbus Academy (7-0), Bexley (5-2), Hartley (4-2-1), Columbus School for Girls (4-3) and Watterson (3-3-1) and ahead of Granville (1-6) and Wellington (1-6).
Other expected impact players include seniors Kierra Graham (defender), Sarah Hughes (attacker), Mallory Janszen (attacker), Meredith Lloyd (goalie), Savanna Osborn (attacker), Kelly Richards (attacker) and Gabriela Sanabrais (attacker) and juniors Maria Burkey (defen-der/midfielder), Kaitlyn Doran (defender), Toni Halter (attacker), Liza Hornyak (attacker/midfielder) and Maggie Simon (defender).
At least three sophomores -- Julia Daniels (attacker/def-ender/midfielder), Marie Finotti (attacker) and Cayman Nebraska (attacker) -- also are expected to see significant playing time, coach Finotti said.
The Stallions' home opener is April 9 against Granville.