As a program in just its third year, there's no question the Johnstown-Monroe High School boys lacrosse team has a long way to go to compete on the level of the area's long-established schools.

Coach Brian Hoge knows that, but to get there, he believes the Johnnies can't be thinking about the big picture. Making that big leap to get to the next level only can happen, he said, if the Johnnies take every little step along the way.

"The biggest thing that we need to work on, and I as a first-year coach need to work on, is getting the kids to do the little things right consistently," Hoge said. "It's playing good man-to-man defense, it's knowing when to go for the scoop instead of going for the man. It's just those little things that, if we get good at them on a consistent basis, we'll start winning some more games."

Although Johnstown remains a work in progress, it bears little resemblance to the team that went 1-10 in the inaugural season two years ago. With four-regular season games remaining before the Division II tournament, Johnstown is 4-7 overall. All four wins have come against varsity opponents, whereas last season's team picked up just three of its seven wins against varsity competition. The last two wins have come against Chardon Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin (13-8 on April 19) and Uniontown Lake (5-4 on April 12), which are a combined 6-8 this season.

Still, a 16-0 loss to Wellington last Tuesday was a harsh reminder that there still is work to be done. Hoge said he's concentrating on getting these players, many of whom are in their first or second year playing lacrosse, to learn "to play the right way" even though they've got to learn on the fly. A big part of playing the right way, for Hoge, is screening and moving without the ball.

Still, maybe the biggest keys for the Johnnies has been the play of their defense, which has seemed to set the tone in both the wins and the losses.

"In the games we've won, we've done well on the defensive side," Hoge said. "Our defense has played really well as far as playing good man-to-man defense and help defense, and not always going for the ball. In the games we've lost, we've lost our discipline on the defensive end."

Because several players also run track or have other extracurricular commitments, the lineup has been in flux for most of the season, but plenty of players have established themselves as consistent contributors. In goal, sophomore Brad Couts has been "excellent," according to Hoge, and ranks in the top five in the state in save percentage (.710). Defensively, seniors Will Beacom and Tyler Jones have been solid, and Ben Schmidt has stepped in and played well as a freshman. Off the bench, juniors Ben Tubbs and Andy Denney and senior Dan Ulry have seen plenty of action on defense.

In the midfield, senior Mitch Dawson has developed into one of the team's best shooters and is second on the team in goals with 12. Juniors Mitch Hendren and Zach Beacom have given the Johnnies some more speed in the midfield. Freshman Jacob Dassylva and juniors Josh McClellan and Kevin Stutz also have rotated in the midfield quite a bit.

Junior attacker Will Carter leads the team in goals with 14, including five against Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin, and also leads in points with 22. Juniors Brett Bohning (19 points) and Levi Jacob (14 points) typically have started alongside Carter on the attack.

The Johnnies still have plenty of time to improve this season, but the prospects for the future should be brighter. Zach Beacom, one of several juniors who have been with the program since its inception, said the Johnnies' veterans still wouldn't mind adding some more first-year players as the program moves forward.

"I think we can do something pretty good if we can get some more kids out on the team," he said. "We just need to keep getting more kids in to play with us."

Johnstown's Brandon Hill (left) tries to get past Wellington's Gareth Burghess last Tuesday during their boys lacrosse match.