By DAN PAWLOWSKI

WAKEFIELD — The 2021 Wakefield High lacrosse team surprised a lot of people on their run to the Div. 2 North championship game.

The 5th ranked Warriors, coming off a Middlesex League Tournament run in which they beat talented Lexington (9-6) and Melrose (9-8) teams to make the championship, topped No. 12 North Reading (13-4) and No. 4 Danvers (14-6) before an epic 10-9 win over No. 8 Billerica in the semifinals brought them to the program’s second ever sectional title game. Wakefield fell to the same Reading team who beat them in the league tourney final, but the point had been made: Warrior lacrosse was one of the state’s best.

“Last year was a tough year but a good one for us,” said head coach Tim Johnson, entering his second full season at the helm after coaching JV for 11 seasons and stepping up to lead varsity halfway through the 2019 campaign. “To come out of Covid and doing nothing the year before to accomplish what we did last year was amazing.

“This year we have to corral that a little bit and understand that last year was last year; it’s a new season with new people and we need guys to step up and carry the torch. Just because we were there last year doesn’t mean we will get there again this year.”

While it’s true the Warriors lost plenty of talented seniors from last year’s team, including leading scorer Max Dimella and long pole defensive experts Matthew and Mike Petitto, they return a plethora of experienced and successful players, a group led by senior captain midfielders Jake Dubiel and Leo Yardumian.

Dubiel and junior goalie Kaiden Johnson were league All-Stars last year. They’re excited to be playing a full season schedule – the first one for everybody on the team except the current seniors. 

“It feels like freshman year all over again,” said Yardumian at a recent practice. 

“The schedule last year was very weird, only playing five teams twice,” admitted Dubiel about the shortened 10-game ‘21 regular season. “We didn’t see a lot of different styles. This year we’re facing better competition every week and we’re really looking forward to the challenge.

“The mindset is just to pick up where we left off last season.”

“We had a really good team last year and we lost a lot of kids but there are teams we beat last year who are ranked ahead of us right now and I think that will fuel us,” said Yardumian. “We had a good offseason with winter work and I think if we keep pushing ahead, we should see good things.”

Wakefield’s goals, as always, revolve around going for a league title, making the state tournament and doing some damage in the bracket. Winning a North Sectional is no longer possible with the new statewide tournament format for Wakefield, situated in a tough Div. 2 which includes familiar powerful programs like Reading, Billerica, Melrose and Danvers in addition to unfamiliar quality teams like last year’s D2 south champion Scituate and central champ Longmeadow. But they can find an equivalent to a sectional championship, which would be winning in the state quarterfinal round. 

To do that, the Warriors need their leaders to put in the work and help some of the more inexperienced players learn what it takes to win.

“We know we have a long road ahead of us to get to any of those goals that we set,” said Johnson. “It’s game by game and it starts right here, treating practice like games and not just going through the motions. You play the way you practice and you practice the way you play.”

Wakefield didn’t have any scrimmages to get ready for their first game against Lexington which took place on the road, Wednesday. The Minutemen took a 7-0 lead in the first half, something Johnson put on himself and his coaching staff as the Warriors couldn’t find a rhythm. Down 7-2 at the break, Wakefield broke out in the second half, beating Lexington by a 7-4 count and just falling short by an 11-9 final. 

“They showed a lot of heart and hustle in that second half,” said Johnson. “We just can’t spot anyone a big lead, especially good teams like that.”

Kaiden Johnson kept his team in it with multiple highlight-reel stops in the first half on his way to 16 saves. Junior Ethan Margolis had a great overall game, racking up 9 ground balls and six different Warriors found the back of the net led by 4 from Dubiel. Margolis, senior Joey O’Brien and junior Joe Colliton all had a goal and an assist. Dubiel had a great game at the faceoff dot, winning 9 of 12 attempts. 

Last year, the Warriors overcame an 8-1 halftime deficit to beat Lexington in the quarterfinals of the league tourney, something Johnson called a defining moment for his team which led to Wakefield’s incredible run afterwards. He’s hoping “playing like Warriors,” in the second half again can be a defining moment for this season, something that would be well-served to happen in game one. 

For Johnson, “playing like Warriors” isn’t just talk. It harkens back to his philosophy of the game, learned from Native American friends who taught him about the history of the sport. 

“We have a Native American-based theme in this town and I want the guys to embrace that culture,” said Johnson. “It’s about getting back to the roots of playing. They have the ability to play not just inside the box but outside the box too and be creative. If we’re doing it at the right time I have no problem with that.”

That’s the type of style and spirit the Warriors took to heart last year. They went viral plenty of times, including a three-pass and shot behind the back goal, a no-look save by Johnson while retreating back to his net and multiple creative, “did-he-just-do-that?” type finishes. 

“We had a lot of super cool highlights,” said Johnson. “Those were created individually outside of the box of what we do. I didn’t coach a ‘BTB-times 3’ and I didn’t coach Jake (Dubiel) scoring from his belly against Stoneham; didn’t coach Oli (Miller) from his knees against Burlington. Those are times that guys knew their talents and knew the timing was right to get after it.

“I think most coaches would agree but some towns might have more restraints. What I’ve learned from Native Americans is to just let them play – let them make things happen.”

Making things happen offensively will be a challenge for the Warriors as they work in a mostly new attack including Colliton, junior John Regan and senior Donovan Foley moving up. 

“Those guys have the skill and talent but they’ve got to prove themselves,” said Johnson. 

They will be buoyed by a strong midfield including Dubiel (UMass Boston lax commit) DeFeo and O’Brien along with tough defensive middies Yardumian and senior Dan Mailhoit. 

The defense should be a strength too, led by Johnson in net along with senior Jon Guida (Springfield College lax commit), Margolis and Brian Casey. 

Together the Warriors want this season to be special. Per usual, they won’t be picked to win the league or go on a deep tourney run. Per usual, that’s how they prefer it. 

For now, Wakefield’s leaders are focused on preparing their younger teammates for what it takes to make that dream a reality. 

“We’re working with the JV kids, getting them ready for playing varsity and focusing on team bonding –we want to be a close group,” said Dubiel. “We want everyone to know where their teammates are going to be on the field, have that lacrosse IQ and make sure we take practice seriously.”

“It’s just making sure everyone is ready,” agreed Yardumian. “We know the rest of the Middlesex League will be ready so we have to set the tone.”

Wakefield will host Arlington today at 4:30 p.m.