While Valley View may have lost seven seniors to graduation from last season, the Blazers have not lost any momentum as they blew through the competition on their way to Saturday's Class 5A state final at Razorback Field in Fayetteville.
Part of the plan to stop the Blazers' offense lies in the midfield where Lakeside seniors Luke Long, Nic Cato and Russell Gartner have excelled this season. Unfortunately for the Rams, Gartner will be on the sidelines for Saturday's game after receiving a red card in last week's semifinal match against Little Rock Christian.
Head coach Craig Moses knows that his midfield has something special to bring to the game that he's seen all year.
"One big reason, is they've been playing together for so long," he said. "They're all seniors, and they've all been playing together for so long. They can communicate to each other without talking to each other. They know what move they're going to make. That's just been one of the special things about this group is that they've played together so much."
Moses will be taking his fourth trip to the finals, and he has instilled in his players how special that trip is.
"It's always special," he said. "Any time you can take a team back up there, it's very special because you never know when it's going to be your last time. I've been very fortunate. I've been up there four times now.
"There are a lot of people who have coached for 20, 30 years and never got there. Yeah, I'd like to win it, but it's just special getting there. The atmosphere there is unbelieveable. They'll never get that experience again. This group's very fortunate to get up there."
Despite the fact that Gartner will not be allowed to dress out for the match, he is stepping into a different role on the pitch -- that of a coach.
"I don't get to play, of course, because I got the red card," he said. "It's more of a coaching aspect for me. I'm just trying to bring these guys up. I can't be there on the field, so I've got to do a little extra off the field in practice for games."
Gartner has a family tie to the state finals, having had two brothers that played for the Rams twice in the finals in Fayetteville.
"It's a pretty special thing," he said of helping his team reach the finals. "I had two older brothers who played at this school, too, and they made it to two state finals, and I was lucky enough to make it to one, too. It just like something that comes in the family.
"It's really special, especially playing with guys out here. Luke, I've played with for four years and four years before that in rec, and the kids who have graduated. We've got a couple out here (helping with practice), Spencer Plumley and Nikolaj Kijser. Those guys played their hearts out, and it's kind of special to have a chance to bring home a state trophy at the end of the day."
Long has a different connection as he scored the winning goals in the last two matches leading up to Saturday's final -- a 20-yard shot into the center of the net against Batesville last Friday and a 30-yard shot in last Saturday's semi-final against Little Rock Christian.
"I know any one of my teammates would step up in the same situation," he said of making the winning goals. "The fact that I had the opportunity to be there and do that was special for me."
Long looks at this weekend's final as a chance to prove that the Rams belong in the finals after entering as the No. 4 seed from the 5A-South.
"In terms of my mindset, it's definitely different for this game just because we know who we're going to play and how much this means," he said. "It just makes it that much more that we have to focus and dig in and really take it to them. This week is kind of our chance to hone everything we've been working on the whole year and get it ready for the biggest game we've ever played in."
"This game is definitely a lot bigger," he said. "A lot more pressure has been put on us for this. Hot Springs and De Queen, it's the same thing. We have to go out there and play our game. We can't just say, 'Oh, we're here. We can just play how we want and not how we got here.' We've got to give 110 percent every single time. I'm looking at this like every other game. We've just got to put everything in it to win it."
Cato joined the Rams just last season after playing at Little Rock Catholic, but he has found his niche in the Ram family, as all three referred to the team.
"It's been a really long, great ride for the past two years I've been on this team," he said. "We've had a lot of up and down games. We got beat by the same team last year, and now we're playing Valley View in the finals of state. It's just a true honor to be able to play with this team and bring true family out there. It would mean the world to us to be the first team at Lakeside to be able to win this. I know how much it means to Coach Mo that he's been here and never won. To be here in this moment with coach and this team means everything to me right now."
Moses is continuing to have the team practice, but he admits that it is less intense than it has been for much of the season.
"We're probably not having as intense practices, but not really (any different) tactically," he said. "I really haven't seen them, and I don't have any film on them. We're just sort of worrying about us. I've seen them a little bit, but not enough. The game I saw was against Hope, and it wasn't much of a game at that point. I'd like to get some film on them to see a bit more, but I don't have it right now.
"We're just going to really focus on us and focus on what we can do better. That's basically the approach I'm taking this week, just letting them have fun. They've practiced since December, and after you've played 20-something games, there's not much we can do but get our legs back under us and keep our touch down and work on things to better us for Saturday."
Kickoff at Razorback Field in Fayetteville is set for noon Saturday.
Sports on 05/16/2018
Print Headline: Lakeside's midfield brings special connection to finals