Boys’ Latin’s Ben Smith is 2021 Player of the Year and Colin Burlace of St. Mary’s is our Defensive Players of the Year, while BL’s Brian Farrell and Archbishop Spalding’s Brian Phipps are named Co-Coaches of the Year
2021 VSN BOYS LACROSSE
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
BOYS’ LATIN SCHOOL
by Nelson Coffin
The story of Boys’ Latin’s MIAA A Conference championship lacrosse season would be incomplete without noting the evolution of Ben Smith’s growth as a player.
Smith, VSN’s 2021 Boys Lacrosse Player of the Year, went from being a steady and reliable attackman to becoming the Lakers’ most dangerous offensive performer down the stretch.
While scoring 27 goals and adding 32 assists for BL in 2021 after recovering from a torn ACL the previous spring, the University of Pennsylvania commit used everything in his arsenal to bedevil opposing defenders when his team was trailing late in games.
He started slowly, heeding the advice of his coaches who told him that it takes time to recover from such a serious injury.
“I had missed a year and a half of lacrosse,” he said. “So it took me until about mid-year to start feeling comfortable with my knee.”
Once he got going, Smith’s penchant for netting clutch goals came to the forefront against St. Mary’s when he converted a feed from fellow attackman Dom Pietramala with three minutes left in regulation to tie the score before the Saints prevailed in OT, 11-10.
To bolster his burgeoning reputation for scoring key goals, this time in a win, Smith turned another Pietramala pass into an over-the-shoulder shot that put BL on top for good in a thrilling 10-8 victory over three-time defending champ Calvert Hall.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior was also adept at helping his team start quickly in big games when he tallied three of his team-best four goals to stake the Lakers to an early 3-2 advantage in an eventual 12-10 setback to Loyola Blakefield.
The next time against the Dons, the stakes were even higher and Smith’s heroics helped to change the outcome in the Lakers’ favor in the A Conference post-season battle.
In a furious fourth-quarter rally, Smith had an assist and scored back-to-back goals to draw BL even before the Lakers pulled off a season-saving 8-7 victory to secure a berth in the semifinal round against previously unbeaten and top-seeded McDonogh.
He was even more productive against the Eagles, leading the way with a pair of goals and four assists as the Lakers overcame an early 4-1 deficit to advance to the championship game by virtue of a 13-12 triumph.
Smith said that the Lakers were well prepared to avenge the 15-8 drubbing they received in their conference opener in Owings Mills in early April.
“We got spanked by them in that game, and then we saw that Inside Lacrosse ranked them No. 2 in the country,” Smith said. “But we knew we could beat them. So we watched eight hours of film together, and we knew what they were going to do every time they had the ball.”
Meanwhile, BL’s offense was cooking.
“We would dodge from the alleys, get the ball behind and make one more pass to the backside” Smith said. “Then we’d have either a step-down (shot) or a re-dodge.”
Smith was still on his game in the final against Archbishop Spalding, scoring three times and assisting two other goals in a 9-8 verdict at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
The Lakers, who finished with a 10-4 record, continued their comeback magic in the game by turning a 6-4 third-quarter deficit into a 9-6 advantage after a 5-0 run in which Smith scored twice and added an assist.
“That’s what was so crazy,” Smith said. “We actually played better when we were down. We just didn’t have the fear that we were going to lose.”
BL coach Brian Farrell said that Smith, who led the league in playoff points with 15, was the Lakers’ “rock” on offense.
“When the moment was biggest, he was at his best,” VSN’s 2021 Boys Lacrosse Co-Coach Of the Year (with Brian Phipps) said. “He led us through that game at Loyola. He was a calming force — a quarterback — and a guy who you wanted to have the ball in his stick. He plays the wing or behind, works hard off-ball, distributes the ball well and rides well. Ben was the engine that kept us going.”
2021 VSN BOYS LACROSSE
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
ST. MARY’S HIGH SCHOOL
by Nelson Coffin
There are plenty of similarities between Colin Burlace, VSN’s 2021 Boys Lacrosse Defensive Player of the Year, and his older brother, BJ, who won the same award in 2019.
Besides playing — and excelling — at the same position, the brothers are St. Mary’s graduates who originally committed to Yale and are slated to play for Division I national championship runner-up Maryland next spring.
And they both spent their formative years learning the finer points of the game from their dad, Brian Burlace, a 1992 First-Team All-America defender for the Terps and the Saints’ defensive coordinator.
“My dad has been teaching me the game since I was in kindergarten,” Colin Burlace said. “And I learned from (playing with) BJ what it takes to be a leader. I give credit to both of them for helping me so much.”
Still, the younger Burlace brother plays the position differently than his older sibling.
“BJ was more of an LSM (longstick midfielder), getting up and down the field,” Colin said, noting that BJ’s forte was sparking transition with takeaways and then finishing on the offensive end of the field.
Colin, on the other hand, used superb positioning and steadfastness to blanket rivals.
“I don’t throw a ton of checks,” he said. “But I try to win every one-on-one battle.”
“Colin is more of an old-school close (defense) guy,” Brian Burlace said. “While his brother is flashier, Colin is more physical and more fundamentally sound.”
As such, Colin was always assigned to cover the opponents’ top attackmen, including a nice outing against Loyola Blakefield standout Henry Tolker in a 9-7 victory over the Dons.
“That was our first big win of the year,” the coach said. “He just focused on shutting Tolker down, and he had a great game. He had a pretty good game against (McDonogh junior attackman) McCabe Miller (in a 16-10 loss the week before), too. But after that game he told the other defenders never to slide to his man ‘for the rest of the season.’ He figured that it’s better to get beaten a few times without a slide than to leave an open man. We didn’t have any problems putting Colin on an island. He’s just such a low-maintenance guy who goes out and plays hard.”
Colin was more than willing to take every challenge.
“It was a big responsibility to take on the other team’s No. 1 guy, because pretty much every one of those guys in the MIAA are going to play D-I,” Colin said. “I was honored to accept that responsibility.”
He said that his best game came when he scored a goal as the Saints ripped off their fifth MIAA A Conference win in a row with an 11-10 overtime road win at eventual league champ Boys’ Latin.
With the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder leading an aggressive defense, those back-to-back wins over Loyola Blakefield and three-time defending champ Calvert Hall gave St. Mary’s the confidence that it could compete — and beat — BL.
The end of the season was not as kind to the Saints, who dropped their final three games to Archbishop Spalding, archival Severn and Calvert Hall in the playoffs to finish the season at 6-4.
He has continued to showcase his talent this summer in tournaments.
VSN’s 2021 Boys Player of the Year Ben Smith said that he has gotten to know Colin since they played on a club team recently and are preparing to play for the South All-Stars in the Under Armour Senior High School All-Star game later this month at Homewood Field.
“He’s a bruiser and, more importantly, a great kid,” Smith said. “He’s a big, strong guy who lays down the wood — you don’t want to go up against him.”
2021 VSN BOYS LACROSSE
CO-COACHES OF THE YEAR
BOYS’ LATIN SCHOOL
ARCHBISHOP SPALDING HIGH SCHOOL
by Nelson Coffin
They share a fierce competitive streak and a love of lacrosse.
They were in each other’s weddings and played the sport at an elite level for their college (Maryland) and professional (Chesapeake Bayhawks, Ohio Machine) teams.
Despite their close relationship, Boys’ Latin coach Brian Farrell and his Archbishop Spalding counterpart Brian Phipps went after each other with everything they had in the MIAA A Conference championship game in May.
When it was over, the Lakers celebrated a taut 9-8 victory — Farrell’s first title since taking over for legendary coach Bob Shriver in 2015 and the program’s first since 2014 — while Phipps could take solace in the fact that he had guided the up-and-coming Cavaliers to their first-ever final.
Farrell and Phipps remain best buddies after a season in which they both distinguished themselves as VSN’s 2021 Boys Lacrosse Co-Coaches of the Year.
Farrell never lost hope as the Lakers dropped four league games before making a remarkable post-season run that included three one-goal wins over opponents who had defeated them during a season that started with COVID-19 protocols forcing locker room restrictions and several game postponements.
“It was a season of sacrifice,” said Farrell, a top-notch defenseman on BL’s 2006 championship squad. “We were shut down early and missed two games. We didn’t have a (normal) locker room. We had to ask our seniors not to have a social life — and that was really a hard thing to do for high school seniors.”
Little things, that are typically part of the sports culture, had to be jettisoned.
“You couldn’t even hug your buddy (after a good play),” Farrell said. “We had to go to a Zoom (video conferencing) life. It was hard.”
Early-season disruptions — it was more than three weeks between BL’s season-opening win over Haverford School and its league debut against McDonogh — and a key injury to senior defender AJ Hernandez made Farrell’s job that much more taxing.
Still, he persevered through a 15-7 drubbing by the Eagles and a 14-12 setback to Phipps’ Cavaliers before reaching what was a pivotal point against three-time defending champ Calvert Hall.
Both teams boasted 3-2 league records entering the contest, so the outcome was likely to give the victor a leg up in the playoff seeding.
And when the Lakers trailed, 8-4, to begin the final quarter, it appeared their chances were slim and none.
However, with Farrell and his coaches refusing to panic, the Lakers bounced back to claim a 10-8 verdict.
BL senior attackman Ben Smith, VSN’s 2021 Player of the Year, said that Farrell told his players that “it would come down to preparation, grit and culture” to continue to improve.
There is little doubt that the Lakers bought into Farrell’s pitch, considering the way they began the playoffs with another miraculous escape against Loyola Blakefield by overcoming a four-goal, fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Dons, 8-7.
“That’s definitely not the formula you want, to get down like that,” Farrell said.
Even so, BL seemed to thrive on overcoming deficits in ousting previously unbeaten McDonogh in the semifinal round and Spalding for the championship.
Farrell said that there was a mix of emotions after beating Phipps in the finale.
“But that’s what you work for as coaches, to see the kids smiling, cutting the nets and hugging each other,” he said.
On the other hand, he felt for Phipps.
“Deep down, he’s a coach at heart,” Farrell said. “He’s a fun guy to be around and the fact that he’s still playing (professionally at age 33), shows the fire within him. He went through a lot of struggles, but how far (Spalding) has come speaks to his work ethic, Obviously, the kids have bought in — and they will continue to be successful.”
When going against Phipps, Farrell said that the friends “try not to make it about the coaches.”
Phipps said that the two ex-Terps’ competitive juices were flowing in the championship game.
“Obviously, in the heat of the moment I wanted to beat him,” said Phipps, a goalie who won a championship with the Major League Lacrosse Chesapeake Bayhawks in 2019 and was claimed by the Premier Lacrosse League’s Whipsnakes for a game earlier this month. “But seeing him win his first championship was cool.”
Phipps landed the Spalding job in 2014 and has piloted the Cavaliers through a slow and steady ascent into the elite ranks of the A Conference, which was foreign territory for the program until this spring.
They broke through with a winning record in the 2019 campaign, topped off with a National High School Lacrosse Showcase championship that summer.
Spalding was 12-3 this season, beating Philadelphia power Malvern Prep, BL and Calvert Hall twice with a potent offense that produced a league-best 182 goals — 20 more than any other team.
“We’ve been working hard toward becoming one of the best teams in the country,” he said. “That (2019) was a good year, but 2020 might have been our year.”
Phipps added that he and Farrell have embraced former Maryland coach Dave Cottle’s tenets of camaraderie, trust and building relationships.
“Those things are more important than X’s and O’s,” he said.