'From Florence to Final Four': Topsail lacrosse enjoying the moment

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— The cardboard boxes that sat near the sideline may have never been opened had things turned for the worse for Topsail’s boys lacrosse team in Friday’s playoff win over New Hanover.

But the Pirates advanced with a 12-11 victory on a last-minute game-winner, which meant the surprise waiting inside those boxes — a commemorative shirt that would’ve only made sense if Topsail won — could come out.

On the front, the shirt simply reads “Topsail Lacrosse.”

On the back, however, there’s the statement of the season: “From Florence to Final Four.”

It’s been a long year in Pender County, which was devastated after the hurricane slammed into the coast on Sept. 14, 2018.

Students missed 29 or 30 days of class time, depending on the school, a full six weeks that shifted the whole calendar shifted, and has made everything school-related since feel like a mad scramble to the finish line in June.

“It’s been crazy,” said senior Eli Copeland.

But the finish line for Topsail’s lacrosse team is now just a game away. The Pirates are hosting the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A/2A/3A East final Tuesday against Chapel Hill, and the winner goes to the state title.

“We just have a bunch of guys who — from not being able to practice at all in the fall from the hurricane, to getting the late start in the spring since our semester was pushed back — (have) gutted it out since the beginning of all that and none of them ever quit after all that,” Topsail coach Jamie Sliwa said.

Topsail is unique in its lacrosse history. Unlike almost every program that usually finds themselves still playing at this point of the year, Topsail isn’t in a metropolitan county and the program itself is relatively new.

In just a few short years, Topsail has gone from a 1A school without lacrosse to a 3A school on the doorstep of a state title appearance.

The Pirates had never won more than nine games in a season before this one, nor won a playoff contest. Their fast rise is a prime example of how the sport can take off in the right conditions.

Sliwa, a veteran coach who coached at Jordan and Apex Friendship before coming to Hampstead this year, said his team has adjusted well to changes he’s brought in. The goalie and most of the defenders were midfielders just last year.

“I think it’s just been their willingless to do whatever we ask,” Sliwa said. “They just want to do whatever it takes to succeed, and honestly it’s that attitude that has gotten us to this point this year.”