As the 2011 season wore on, and the South Mecklenburg boys lacrosse team trudged to another losing record, Eli Morris at least could take solace in one thing: Next season, his senior year, he would be The Man.
It’s a moniker most athletes strive to attain, and the high-scoring Morris was no exception, especially since he hoped to further prove his wares and attract the gaze of more college recruiters.
Then, as the school year began last August, he learned that he wasn’t the only big-time scorer on the South Meck campus – a talented attackman named R.J. Loesch had transferred in from Charlotte Catholic.
“Last year, two of our top three scorers graduated, and it was kind of supposed to be put on my shoulders for this season,” Morris recalled with a smile. “And then when we heard that this new kid from Catholic was coming that was supposed to be pretty good, it was like, ‘Dang, I’ve got competition now – some big-time competition!’”
But this isn’t a story about two gifted players fighting over the ball, eschewing passing and trying to out-dazzle each other with goals to the detriment of the team; this is a story of two of south Charlotte’s best players focusing on combining their talents to lift each other’s games – and, as a result, the fortunes of a once-downtrodden program.
This season, Morris and Loesch have been one of the state’s best one-two punches, combining for 106 goals and 38 assists. In the process, they’ve helped the Sabres attain a 9-6 record – no small feat, considering the team won a total of eight games during the previous three campaigns.
“It’s difficult to describe the impact Eli and R.J. have had this season,” said South Meck coach Tim Murphy, who’s in his second season at the helm. “Having two players with such scoring ability on the field opens up options for everyone. Each of them brings a different skill set that really allows us to change our game plan game to game. As the season has progressed, defenses began to shift their attention to this tandem, and suddenly several other players began scoring.”
Loesch, a senior who’s narrowed his college-playing choices to either Catholic University in Washington, D.C., or Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, has scored 53 goals and registered 25 assists. Meanwhile, Morris, a senior who had some small-college playing opportunities but will instead enroll in the engineering program at Clemson University, has totaled 53 goals and 13 assists.
Considering their lofty scoring totals and South Meck’s position as a team with a chance to make the state playoffs, it sometimes looks as if Loesch and Morris have been playing together for years. But they’d never even seen each other play, not even on the summer lacrosse circuit.
As they began attending South Meck’s preseason workouts, however, they knew they had a special connection on the field.
“Once we learned each other’s games and tendencies, that’s when we felt we could be good together and help the team win,” Loesch said. “I think that unpredictability we bring messes up the defenses; they have to focus on two of us.
“We have sets and things like that that we run through, but when Eli and I get the ball, we kind of know where we want to go. I’ll do no-look passes, and he’ll spin to the right side and throw with his right hand instead of his left hand. Whenever someone scores like that, it gets you fired up and makes you want to score goals. It’s a competition, but it builds our team. It sparks the fire. It’s more of a motivator.”
“R.J.’s a great player to play with,” Morris said. “He’s always got his eyes up and looking for me to score, just like I try to look for him. I think it’s helped our team more than anything. I think having two players that can play well made everyone else play better, too.”
And despite their talents, Loesch and Morris haven’t had to resurrect the program by themselves.
Another strong attackman, junior Matt Ludwick, has scored 29 goals. Sophomore midfielder Daniel Nix has 20 assists and 12 goals, while fellow 10th-grader Chase Scott has added 12 goals and 13 assists.
Defensively, the Sabres have been led by junior captain Andrew Madsen, a long-stick midfielder, and sophomore Benjamin Beiser. Murphy also heaped praise on goalie Nathan Fisher, who he said “might be the team’s biggest surprise.”
“There is a real sense of team this year at South,” Murphy noted. “While we are graduating an incredibly prolific duo, I think they have opened a door for this team to reach new heights over the next couple seasons.”
Although Morris and Loesch both took up the sport in elementary school, this season just might’ve helped them learn more about themselves – as players and people – than they ever knew.
Loesch, who moved from New Jersey five years ago, learned that he could come in as an “outsider” and help change the culture of a program that had experienced nothing but struggles. Morris, a self-described “Southern boy,” received confirmation that there was a greater reward in being one of the best players a winning team than simply being The Man.
“I would definitely say the thing I’ll remember most is making friends,” Loesch said. “Going into this not knowing what to expect and then having it turn out for the best, that’s all you can ask for. I can honestly say I’ve had my best year of lacrosse yet. I’ve had the most fun I’ve ever had and my favorite coach, and I can’t ask for any more than that.”
Morris, who endured all those losing seasons before, reflected on the turnaround.
“The big thing I’ll remember is definitely winning,” he said. “Coming from freshman year, when we won one game, to sophomore year, when we won two games, and junior year it was (five) games, it was tough.
“And I’ll also remember playing with (Loesch), because he definitely made me better – on the practice field and, from there, on the game field.”