When Hayden Bradbury was in middle school, two of his peers, Travis Wooten and Ethan Niles, had each played one season of lacrosse. Wooten talked him into giving it a try.

“And I just kind of fell in love with it,” Bradbury said.

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Ethan Niles started playing the game when his dad, Powhatan head varsity boys lacrosse coach Joe Niles, brought home a lacrosse stick, and they started playing catch in the yard.

It was in his third game ever playing lacrosse that he scored his first-ever goal about 10 yards away from the net.

“From that point,” he said, “I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

He’s been playing for 10 years now.

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Robbie Williams remembered the time he and his family members were watching and rooting for the University of Virginia Cavaliers men’s lacrosse team when it won the 2011 national championship. He recalled his dad saying: Hey, that seems like a cool sport; I’m going to sign you up, we can find a league for you to play in.

Making the transition to lacrosse from baseball, Williams first played for Weaver in 2012 because Powhatan didn’t yet have a team, but once the Powhatan recreational lacrosse program took form – establishing lacrosse in the county – Williams joined his classmates on the field and played alongside them throughout the rest of the decade.

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Spencer Moran was in fifth grade at Blessed Sacrament Huguenot when a lacrosse team was started there. Wanting to play a sport, Moran decided to give it a try, and he played at BSH until around eighth grade when he played on the Powhatan club rec team under head coach Joe.

Before joining the team, Moran had played midfield, but Joe, recognizing his ability and potential as a defenseman, told him to get a D-pole.

From there, defense became Moran’s position.

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Jacob Leynes’ dad played lacrosse in high school for one of the first Chesterfield programs, and Leynes himself was part of Powhatan’s inaugural season of recreational lacrosse in 2013. He had Joe as a coach when he was playing on the U11 team.

During Leynes’ eighth grade season, Joe’s dad, Gerald, who helped Joe coach in the Powhatan Rec program for several years, told Leynes how much he admired him as a player and a person.

That really motivated Leynes in lacrosse – and in life in general.

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Coach Joe affectionately called Powhatan boys lacrosse’s Class of 2020 seniors – Bradbury, Ethan, Leynes, Moran and Williams – the “Fab 5.” He also called them “an amazing group of young men that I have had the distinct pleasure of coaching over the past six years” since the inception of Powhatan County lacrosse.

“They represent the bedrock on which our program is built,” he said before underlining the following.

“They will be missed.”

Hayden Bradbury: ‘The brains of our defense’

Joe called Bradbury, who played at the close defender position, “the brains of our defense.”

“I think I just really enjoyed the technical aspect of it and how . . . a single player can never carry a defense,” Bradbury said, speaking to being able to know who had to be where and when they had to be there, and also to keeping track of the kinds of offensive sets that opposing teams were putting up against them.

“Hayden Bradbury was a very cerebral player,” Ethan said. “He watched a lot of highlights on YouTube, he knows what to do defensively, mentally, and he was always there to kind of quarterback the defense and direct traffic for our defense.”

Bradbury said he and fellow close defender Moran – whom Joe called the “heartbeat” of Powhatan’s defense – did really well with complementing one another.

“He’s a whole lot bigger – he’s not afraid to get in there,” Bradbury said of Moran, “and with me being better at the technical side of it, it usually worked out pretty well.”

Spencer Moran: ‘The heartbeat of our defense’

“During games, definitely I would give it my 100 percent. I had a lot of emotion on the field. I tried my hardest,” said Moran, who also brought size – he stands tall at 6-foot-4 and weighs 185 pounds – as well as athleticism to the defensive position.

“When something would happen wrong on the field, I’d try to talk to everyone, see what’s going on, fix it for the next time.”

“Spencer was super competitive and he was always a great way to show some energy on the field and kids would build off of that sort of energy,” Ethan said. “We always knew he had our backs.”

Moran also played travel lacrosse for Venom, on which his teammates included Ethan and Williams.

“That was fun, and that gave me a different coaching experience, because . . . every coach has a completely different style, and having multiple coaches throughout my career in lacrosse just really helped me find a hybrid of all the different types of playing,” Moran said. “I used to get a fair amount of penalties and I was just out there going for bodies, and then I learned more footwork and more skill, and got better than just being big. That helped as well, advance my game.”

Jacob Leynes: Enjoying the transition

In youth lacrosse, Leynes played on the attack, but he switched to midfield where he enjoyed playing both offense and defense. For varsity, he was a transition midfielder. Joe expected Leynes to take on a key defensive role this year.

“Even when I played basketball when I was younger, I was always much better at defense than offense, and so I just liked being able to shut players down as opposed to: take all the glory and score, because even when I did play attack, I didn’t really get that many goals,” Leynes said. “I got way more assists than goals. So I was more of a defensive-oriented player and it just took me a while to figure that out.”

But another thing he loved was that chance of intercepting the ball and playing transition offense – something he found way more enjoyable than settled offense.

“Because you just are always pushing towards the goal,” Leynes said, “and it’s really one of the most fun ways to score or get assists in lacrosse.”

Leynes had speed on his side, and through his experiences playing offense, he understood what the offensive players on opposing teams were going to do, further helping his own play on defense.

“Jacob was a great defensive midfielder – and we could always count on him to work hard,” Ethan said. “We could always count on him to be there at practice and to do the extra steps off the field to get better.”

Breaking through

Leynes’ “absolute favorite memory” from Powhatan lacrosse occurred during last year’s game at Charlottesville. The two teams, who had built a rivalry through playing in the Jefferson District together, clashed all the way into overtime, tied 15-15. One overtime goal would decide the game.

Leynes recalled how they won the face-off, but then turned the ball over, but then got the ball back.

His teammate, Williams, never wanted the game to go into overtime.

“I was very nervous,” Williams said. “But I remember: I caught the ball, and I just dodged, and I remember being tripped, and I didn’t see a flag, and then the flag finally came out. “

He had this thought of: Do I take a shot now? Because if you get a flag, it’s a free possession, he said – even if you miss the shot or lose the ball, you get it back.

“So it was like: I’d rather take a bad shot now than pass it and someone drop it or I drop it and we don’t get that shot off in the first place,” Williams said.

The shot he ended up taking “was kind of a laughing moment,” he said.

“It was bad. It was slow,” Williams said, citing nerves. “It bounced like four times on the ground … It was not an impressive shot at all.”

It was also the shot that caused Powhatan to erupt in celebration.

Williams described the shot he made as being “pretty far-out,” and there was a lot of commotion in front of Williams, with guys moving around and legs in the way. That made it a pretty hard shot for the goalie to see coming.

The ball rolled in.

The tie was broken.

The winning score of 16-15 went to Powhatan.

“Whenever I score . . . I’m not one to celebrate; I kind of just stand there and might give out a high five or whatnot,” Williams said. “I think that was the one time where I was just so excited to score, and jumping up and down and getting tackled after was crazy.”

Robbie Williams: Leading with composure

Ethan complimented Williams’ experience at the midfielder position.

“He has a very good shot,” Ethan said. “We could always count on Robbie to make the right plays from the midfield’s perspective.”

Williams also stepped up in last year’s road match at Fluvanna. After the Indians defeated the Flying Flucos the first time, they expected to roll past them again. But it didn’t go like that. Williams recalled how they weren’t playing as well, their morale was down and the Flying Flucos were getting into their heads.

“I just tried to stay calm, just guide the team,” Williams said, speaking to sticking to what he did best, to not getting out of control, to knowing his skill set and to not trying to do things he’s not good at.

He ended up scoring four goals, two of which helped his team break out in the fourth quarter and secure the win.

Ethan Niles: A catalyst for the offense

Joining Williams as an offensive powerhouse for Powhatan lacrosse was Ethan, a three-year team captain who ranked first on the team in overall points (goals and assists) and holds the team records for most points in a season and most assists. He was a four-year varsity starter, a 2019 Second Team All-Region Selection and a 2020 Preseason All-American Nominee.

Ethan felt he brought energy to the team and acted as a catalyst for the offense. He spoke to having great vision and awareness on the field, and to being able to help kids score and quarterback the offense.

“I definitely attribute my knowledge of my game to the extensive amount of YouTube highlights and college games I have watched,” he said.

The art of getting good

One of the unique things about Powhatan’s lacrosse program, Joe said, was that each of the seniors understood their responsibility to teach the game and to be mentors to the younger players, as well as demonstrate how the game is meant to be played, and what it means to play lacrosse for Powhatan High School.

It was through the progress he made as a player that Moran felt he was able to be a role model to his younger teammates.

“It’s just really tough to start late, and I did, and I think the players saw me progress, because I used to just go around and body because I didn’t have very good stick skills. I wasn’t very good, I was just athletic and big,” Moran said. But then, he said, once you get to playing high school varsity lacrosse as a freshman, you have to realize “that you are not even close to the biggest kid on the field, and there’s way more athletic people, so you’ve got to get some skill on you and try.”

“I think people saw me progress that way and inspire people,” Moran said, “and I tried to get a lot of people to play lacrosse and I did.”

Some of the seniors pointed out that, when you start a sport late, you start at a disadvantage.

“It’s like baseball – it’s kind of hard to just walk in and try this, because it’s a lot of hand-eye coordination and the chemistry with your other players to know how to throw a ball and how to pick up the ball and how to run with the ball and have to shoot especially,” Moran said.

Williams said it took him about three to four years to consider himself a quote-unquote good lacrosse player.

He noted his own progression from scoring around nine goals as a sophomore to 19 as a junior.

“I still don’t feel like I’m at that really good level yet after eight seasons of play, and I think that’s kind of what makes it enjoyable, is that you can see improvement as you go on and as you get better,” Williams said.

Powhatan’s players as a whole started late in comparison to other teams in Virginia who have had lacrosse programs “for years and years and years” according to Moran, with players from those programs starting when they were really little.

“We were such a young program,” Bradbury said. “We didn’t win a whole lot whenever we first started, but then as we got older and as we worked and worked and worked and got kicked around a whole bunch, we started getting pretty good.”

And as time went on, he and his teammates began to beat teams that had always beaten them.

“Just to see the progression and just to work so hard with so many kids that I had known for so long, I think was probably my favorite part of it,” Bradbury said.

That they went so long with being the underdog and a program that everybody wrote off as a win for them automatically, and having to come up through the years – because of that, Bradbury and his teammates had a chip on their shoulders all the time, no matter where they went or who they were playing, he said.

“It was just kind of always an all-out battle . . . just to prove that we were something.”

From the years its players spent focused on lacrosse to the time they shared as teammates growing up, Powhatan quickly ascended from humble beginnings to a 10-5 season in 2019.

That spring marked the Indians’ winningest campaign in the team’s four years competing on the varsity level, not including 2020.

“Whenever we won, it was because we worked harder than other teams even though they were more talented than us,” Leynes said. “That’s what I really liked about it, is that we just proved the value of hard work.”

“Last year, I believe we just came in with a mentality of: We can compete. We’re good. We know what we can do. I also believe that last year our defensive middies really stepped up and really improved in how they played,” Williams said. “We were well-rounded last year compared to other seasons.”

“Our junior year, we knocked it out the water,” Moran said. “We won all the games we should’ve. There was a few teams that we could’ve beat, but we didn’t, and there were a few teams we knew we weren’t going to beat and we thought we were going to get blown out the water, and we did fairly well.

“Knowing that you’re not going to win a few games, but you can try your hardest and show them that we’re not just some backwoods lacrosse team, helps you when you’re down a little bit,” Moran said. “You keep on fighting and try your hardest.”

“Everybody had built up confidence with their playstyle and how well they could compete,” Ethan said. “Our coaches had figured out the best method of coaching us at this sort of level, and we had adapted as a team and grown together as a team to be able to compete much better than we had in the previous years.”

A promising senior season cut far too short

Powhatan went into the 2020 season having changed districts from Jefferson to Dominion, in which they’d face neighboring teams from Chesterfield County.

“I think we were all a little worried about the changing districts and everything, because that put us up against some really, really good programs,” Bradbury said. “I know we were practicing really hard.”

After losing several talented seniors and top contributors from last year, Williams said this year was about seeing how they’d adapt.

“It was like a look-ahead and to see how other teams, future Powhatan teams, would adapt into situations like this, and how the classmen under us would adapt when we eventually left,” Williams said. “It was about filling those holes that losing the seniors created.”

Leynes felt they were going to have a strong season.

“Last year was a great season – we had lost a couple seniors last year that were some of our best players ever,” Leynes said. “But I think that everybody was just going to step up and fill their positions and we were going to have another winning season and might actually have made it further into the playoffs. . . . I saw a lot of potential in our team this year.”

Moran also felt they were going to do great things.

“We improved as a whole team. We had a strong chemistry, very fast, with a lot of new players,” Moran said. “We had a JV team – I just thought we were really growing as a program.”

But not long after the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip the nation in March, schools statewide were ordered by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to close, leading to the Virginia High School League cancelling its spring seasons for the year.

“I know I was definitely disappointed by it. It’s definitely tough, I think everybody’s kind of having a tough time about it . . . I know everybody was really excited,” Bradbury said. “Coach Joe was still sending us practice stuff to do over the two weeks [we were initially supposed to be out], and then they kind of just cancelled everything out from under us, and I definitely wasn’t expecting it. It really caught me off-guard.”

“That was the hardest part about this whole ordeal was knowing that I won’t have a last lacrosse season, because that’s something that, your senior year sport, that’s something you can never do again,” Moran said. “It’s just really tough to know that I’ll never get on the field with Coach Joe and my team and have a winning season as a senior and – I mean I’ve been working for this moment my whole lacrosse career and it just got demolished – like that’s your favorite part, I’d been waiting for that all school year, waiting for that lacrosse year, and it got taken down.

“That was the hardest part for me with this pandemic, what it affected.”

“It was awful. I was excited to play a final year for Powhatan,” Ethan said. “I had first started playing when the league was created in Powhatan, and I was expecting a grand finale of a senior season.”

“Just watching the news, seeing what the coronavirus was doing to our nation and to the world really kind of opened my eyes and made me foreshadow the fact that my season was probably going to get cancelled,” Leynes said. “And so that extra time allowed me to just have that time to reflect on what was really going on in the world and not take it as hard.”

Focusing on the road ahead

To Bradbury – who has a scholarship offer from a college in Wyoming, is interested in majoring in history as well as becoming a history teacher and might play lacrosse again down the road for an adult league – the current times have shown him that they can persevere and find a way to make do with everything that’s been happening.

“It’s been tough, but we’ve found ways to persevere. I still hang out with some of my teammates. My brother played, so we go out in the yard and some of the younger players come over,” Bradbury said. “I think we’ve found a way to kind of keep playing, to kind of just make the best of the situation because I know everybody’s going through it.”

For Williams – who right now is planning to attend Hampden-Sydney College, study computer science and mathematics and is still deciding whether or not to play in college – he only got to play two seasons of high school lacrosse. In addition to the hard work he was already putting in towards improving himself as a player, he also had to go through the recovery process of bouncing back from a broken femur that made him sit out his freshman year. From both his injury and the pandemic that took away his senior season, Williams has seen that it’s about using what you get – and not taking it for granted.

“I think that’s kind of the whole thing, is taking what you get and putting it to the best use, and I think I did that sophomore to junior year,” Williams said. “I think I saw a lot of improvement, and I believe that injury freshman year kind of sparked that, and I don’t think I would be as good as a lacrosse player now if I didn’t have that injury. You take a step back to get a big leap forward.”

The extra time that came with the pandemic allowed Leynes time to better himself both physically and mentally.

“Over this time, I found out that I got into the University of Virginia off the wait list, and so that’s where I’ll be going in the fall, and so that really motivated me even more after all the negativity,” said Leynes, who wants to be an engineer and study mechanical engineering. “I’ve just been trying to stay mentally and physically in shape. I’ve been doing a lot of running and just exercising and doing just a lot of things to just keep my mind occupied like walking and reading and just all kinds of just things to pass the time.

“Just to have that time . . . I think it was necessary,” he said. “We’re living in such a fast-paced world, and this time actually gave us time to slow down and reflect on ourselves, and I’m actually valuing it and trying to make the most of it.”

Moran has been working out a lot, and he’s been looking into the club team at Longwood University where he’ll be going to college.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play lacrosse in college,” Moran said. “This just assured my hopes that I’ll join the club team and play some ball before I graduate college.”

Moran wants to double-major in political science and criminology, and he wants to join the Coast Guard to become a rescue swimmer.

Ethan next year will be playing Division III lacrosse for Alvernia University, a private school in Pennsylvania.

“The offseason began the day our spring season was cancelled. To stay in shape I’ve been working out in our home gym and have been going for runs,” Ethan said. “I’m incredibly motivated to make next season amazing, and all of my sights are set on succeeding at the next level. With the remainder of school being cancelled, I’ve also began preparing for the academic rigor I will be facing next year.”

A field of camaraderie

Several of Powhatan lacrosse’s players came up through the recreational program together, fostering bonds with one another over the years.

“We’ve been playing together since we were really young and we’ve watched each other grow up. . . we have this really strong sort of camaraderie that I think is unmatched by a lot of other teams in our area,” Ethan said. “We help each other out on our weaknesses and work well on supporting each other with our strengths. And furthermore, that bond sort of helps with the teamwork aspect of it. So if somebody makes a mistake, then we’re right there to pick each other back up, and it keeps kids’ heads up when things aren’t going so well on the field, and we’re also there to support each other when things aren’t going well.”

Bradbury said he and Moran have been playing next to each other since around seventh or eighth grade. And team chemistry from the start, Williams said, was pretty good.

“I feel like it started off really nice, and a lot of them, I had in classes, too, so it was kind of on-and-off-the-field chemistry, and it was just a really easy transition from Weaver where I knew no one there to Powhatan, where I knew people I was playing with, and I believe that’s kind of what started me off, getting better,” Williams said.

The teammates have gotten to share many fond memories together, from hanging out outside of lacrosse to the Saturday practices that Bradbury enjoyed – along with getting to practice early to pass the ball around with everyone – to the youth summer camps that the players would help coach, to the bus rides home whenever they won a game.

“I don’t think anyone on the team hated losing more than Coach Joe, but no one else on the team was happier when we won except Coach Joe,” Moran said. “The bus rides there, we were quiet, we were focused. The bus rides back, if we won, they were a blast.”

Joe really helped the players find their natural athleticism and skill, and he helped find the perfect position for them – something that Moran can attest to.

“He was super smart about finding the potential in a player,” Moran said. “I came in eighth grade and he knew right then … he saw me play one practice, he said, ‘bring your D-pole to practice next time,’ and I said, ‘yes sir’ and then stuck with that.

“He’s a really good man and he wants the best for you and will do pretty much anything to help you out and teach you, and if you’re not picking up on something, then he’ll spend extra time,” Moran said. “I’ve never met someone that cared more about the sport than Coach Joe. He’s super into it and he gives it 100 percent all the time.”

Bradbury said Joe had talked to him about using what he’s good at, knowing what he can do himself and working with his teammates to figure out what needs to happen.

“Also Coach Joe was very big on commitment,” Bradbury said. “His whole thing was the attitude and the effort of the practice. And I think that applies to pretty much everything: if you have a good attitude and you put effort in, things will usually go your way.”

Leynes spoke fondly of Joe’s father Gerald, whom he called “Coach Niles” and said “had such a loving attitude towards the game of lacrosse.”

Gerald passed away from cancer two years ago. Leynes and many of his teammates wore tape on their helmets saying “Niles” to honor his impact on Powhatan’s lacrosse community.

Each one of the five seniors, Joe said, was a leader on Powhatan varsity lacrosse. They were very unselfish, he said, and they always took the time to help the underclassmen.

“They are also all very hard workers and very intelligent,” Joe said. “I have no doubt that they will go far in life.”

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