Derek Wagner picked up his 100th career win in February and has plenty of wisdom to share.
Near the end of the third quarter of Tuesday's game against Canterbury, the Cardinal Mooney High lacrosse team faced a five-goal deficit, 11-6.
After taking a 2-0 lead, the Cougars had been outscored 11-4. Even after a Mooney goal got the home crowd briefly back into it, Canterbury immediately made it 12-7. On a night when Mooney coach Derek Wagner was honored at midfield pregame for his 100th career win — which he earned Feb. 25 in an 18-10 win against Berkeley Prep — it looked like the Cougars were going down in defeat.
When the game ended, the Cougars all threw their sticks in the air in a mass celebration. They had made a furious comeback in the fourth quarter to take a one-goal lead, remained confident despite two late Canterbury goals that put them down again, then scored with less than 30 seconds left to send the game into sudden-death overtime, where Mooney won, 16-15.
A different team, even a talented one, would likely packed it in after the third quarter. Not the Cougars. Wagner made sure of that.
"He's (Wagner) the best motivator I know," Mooney junior Sean Laureano said. "He goes out there and puts together great schemes offensively and pushes us to work our hardest. That's why we are able to get these gritty, hard-fought wins like tonight."
Laureano said Wagner's message against Canterbury was conveyed purely through emotion. There wasn't one line of rhetoric that Wagner used to fire up his players. Instead, the message was written on his face and in the sound of his voice. He believed in them, so they should believe in themselves. The Cougars were good enough to complete the comeback, they just had to go do it.
"When we play with a lot of emotion, that's when we're at our best," senior Ramsey Choueiri said. "It's also when we have the most fun. That's what we were able to do in the fourth quarter. We picked it up from Coach."
Wagner said he knew there was a chance the team would have a shaky start to the game. It was just the Cougars' second home game of the season; the first was the Berkeley Prep game in February. It's a scheduling quirk of lacrosse, Wagner said, where teams schedule home-and-home matchups in consecutive years. Sometimes that results in a plethora of home games in a season, but when that happens, the next year home games will be scarce. The Cougars have two home games remaining, at 6 p.m. Thursday against Springboro High (Ohio) and at 7 p.m. April 8 against Lake Highland Prep.
As a result of the gap between home games, Wagner knew his team wanted to play its best — and maybe try a little too hard in the process. The rocky start wasn't a shock, but the scoring margin was. Wagner said he got nervous as the game approached the end of the third without the score getting any closer, but he had faith his team would turn it around.
"With high schoolers, everything is between their ears," Wagner said. "They have all the capability in the world to do what they need to do on the field. It's a matter of, can they control what's between their ears? Once they get that snowball effect of a few big plays, that carries itself to the next goal and the next goal and so on. Raw emotion, it's hard to stop that."
The win over Canterbury, Wagner's 105th career win, has the Cougars at 7-4. Wagner said he is at once happy with the team's play and could not care less about its record, as long as the team's losses come in good efforts against quality opponents. The Cougars annually play one of the toughest schedules in the state to prepare the team for the postseason. The deluge of road games this year, while not intentional, will help in that preparation. Wagner said as long as the team keep improving, he'll be satisfied. So far that has been the case. Wagner said he's particularly happy with Mooney's composure when faced with challenges like the Canterbury win.
Wagner's wins have spanned nine seasons at Mooney. Throughout that time, he and his coaching staff have sent dozens of players to the college ranks, including current Utah sophomore M.J. McMahon, Boston University sophomore J.P. Jackson and two Mercer players, junior Ryan Katchen and freshman Christian Laureano. Wagner has learned a lot over the years, but the most important lesson he learned is that every player is an individual.
"You have to handle every one differently," Wagner said. "How tough you are on them and how you address things with them. My phone is always open to them. Players are always calling in the evening if they have an issue and they want to talk about it, school related or not school related. These kids have embraced the program. I think that is what has meant the most to me and been eye-opening for me. They're 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids, but when they buy in and they trust you, they really open up. They're good, genuine kids. That is the only reason why I do this, to get that genuine-ness out of them and watch them develop over the years. That's what keep me and my other coaches going."
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