“When we were having hard times I told them the good times would start coming when they were having fun and there was smiles on their faces,” the coach said. “I see that now.”
Now the Highlanders are arguably the hottest team in Northern Virginia. They started the region tournament with a win over district champion Oakton on Tuesday, setting up a meeting with Yorktown — ranked No. 1 in The Post’s midseason poll — in the Virginia Class 6 Region D semifinal. On Thursday night, McLean (8-8-1) earned the upset of the postseason with a 2-1 win.
“The boys are finally finding that camaraderie,” Gaitan said. “They’re finally having fun and things are just clicking. I can see it in training. Everything is just positive.”
Preparing for the Patriots was a collaborative effort. Many of McLean’s players knew the Yorktown roster fairly well from club soccer and had ideas they shared with Gaitan.
Rotating between two different formations, McLean went into halftime tied at one and then took a 2-1 lead shortly after the break. The goals came from senior Kaan Kocabal and red-hot freshman Joseph Margita, who has seven goals in the team’s last five matches.
The Highlanders will now face neighboring Langley in the region championship Thursday. With a spot in the state quarterfinals already secured, the team can focus on taking a title from its biggest rival.
“I don’t need to tell them importance of playing Langley in a region final,” Gaitan said. “I’m sure the boys are talking to their friends at Langley. They all know what this means.”
A 4-2 win in 10 innings over Chantilly — a well-respected program — in the final game of the regular season would be a confidence boost for any team. Oakton is using it to fuel its postseason run as the path to a Virginia state title becomes clearer.
“That proved to our guys that we can play with anybody,” Coach Justin Janis said.
The Cougars (18-6) brought plenty of experience to the 2022 season, with a largely senior-led team. Paced by three-sport athlete Nick Toole and second basemen Will Dornbusch, Oakton has remained in a strong position throughout the year, even with a few hiccups.
Janis said the self-assurance gained from the win over Chantilly on May 20 has stuck with the team, which also got past Langley on Thursday. That earned the Cougars a spot in Tuesday’s Class 6 Region D semifinals against South Lakes.
The Cougars are 1-2 against the Seahawks this season, with both losses coming during a stretch in which Oakton lost four of six games.
But winning the most recent matchup against South Lakes and having newfound poise, Oakton is confident it can keep its season alive.
“When you don’t always play clean baseball, it’ll catch up and you kind of beat yourself a bit,” Janis said. “To our kids’ credit, they took pride in fixing what needed to be fixed.”
Poolesville completed a season defined by growth on Saturday when it took home the 2A title at the Maryland state tennis championships in Columbia.
Playing in the highly competitive Montgomery County, the Falcons used early tests against bigger schools to develop into a force.
“We were fortunate that we got good competitive matches throughout the season,” Coach Thomas Lang said. “We know that we’re going to have faced some of the top players in the state before we get to our regions or we get to the state [championship]. So we feel pretty good coming out of the season.”
Boys’ singles winner Rohan Bhat hopes this year’s success will increase interest in the sport throughout the school, perhaps helping the Falcons defend their firs title next year.
“I think it will be a huge confidence boost … because we were able to compete with the highest level,” said Bhat, a senior. “Just the experience of being able to play them throughout the course of our season gives us a lot of battle test and match practice against really good opponents.”
After playing his freshman year, Bhat stepped away from the team for two seasons because of the pandemic and to focus on individual tournaments. Playing on the adjacent court from Rohan during the finals Saturday at Wilde Lake Tennis Center was his sister, freshman Ruhika Bhat, who won the girls’ singles title.
Through the opening 10 minutes of the Maryland 4A championship game Thursday, Broadneck’s defense looked like the force it had been all season. Then, with 1:42 remaining in the first quarter, Churchill attackman Eliot Dubick wrapped around a Broadneck defender to find a sliver of space to score his first point.
Broadneck would have no answer for Dubick, who tied a state-record with 10 points, the remainder of its 15-7 loss at Loyola University in Baltimore. In their other four postseason games, the Bruins had allowed 11 total goals.
“Their off-ball cuts were pretty great, well-timed,” Broadneck Coach Jeff McGuire said. “They clearly work around one guy, who played a great game … and struck while the iron was hot. We were a little selfish offensively in transition. When you’re not possessing, your defense is going to wear down pretty quick.”
Broadneck (16-4) had surrendered double-digit goals in two other games this season — losses to powerhouses St. Mary’s (Annapolis) and Severna Park. That sturdiness led the Bruins to their first state championship game appearance since they won their fourth title in 1997.
“I’ve had a lot of friends go through this moment in the regional finals,” defenseman Nate Levicki said. “It’s just a privilege to be a part of such a special team.”