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NOVATO — The best season in Justin-Siena boys lacrosse history came to a close Tuesday night as the Braves fell to former Marin County Athletic League rival Novato in the North Coast Section Division 2 semifinals, 13-6.

After setting a school record for wins, making it to the Vine Valley Athletic League championship, notching their first NCS playoff victory, and upsetting No. 4 seed Bishop O’Dowd in the quarterfinals, the fifth-seeded Braves’ magic ran out as they were blitzed by the No. 1 Hornets (17-7), who led 9-0 at halftime.

While Justin-Siena (15-6) came out and played for pride in the second half, outscoring Novato 5-2 in the fourth quarter, their early deficit proved insurmountable.

“It’s definitely a letdown, to put in all the work to get where we were this year and come out in the first half like we did,” Braves head coach John Murray said, fighting back tears. “It’s really disappointing because I felt like we were more prepared. We were better than what we showed. It just took us three quarters to wake up.”

The Braves’ underclassman-laden squad looked timid at the onset, allowing a barrage of Novato goals early. Justin-Siena didn’t possess the ball at the offensive end until halfway through the first quarter, and by that time it was already 4-0.

“We came out flat. Just not as good of a warm-up as we should’ve had for an NCS semifinal game,” said senior attackman Liam Gleeson. “I think in the second half we just wanted it more. We weren’t going to go out of our season playing like that. We just put our heads down and really started working.”

Gleeson scored two goals in the fourth for the Braves, while freshman scoring leader Aidan Cushing added two fourth-quarter goals and chipped in three assists.

“The second half we kind of started playing team ball,” Cushing said. “We started working the ball around and it really helped. If we could have completed two halves of that, we could’ve come out on top.”

Five of the Braves’ six goals came on man-up opportunities. But when facing even sets, the Hornets’ defense was stifling. They harassed Justin-Siena up and down the field, dominating in all phases until the visitors regrouped at the half.

“It was just a pride thing at that point. I grabbed my seniors before they went out. I told them, ‘We’re not going out like this,’” Murray said. “These guys have been with me since I came out here and I told them, ‘This isn’t how it’s going to end, no 9 to nothing, We’ve got to show out, show what we are worth.’ We turned it around a little bit, but I’m still not happy about it.”

With heavy emotions flowing, Murray told his postgame huddle, “If you’re not bitter about this loss, don’t play Justin-Siena lacrosse next year.”

And while that is a bold statement for a coach who just finished his third season, Murray hopes his words, and the emotions behind them, help keep the bitter taste in the mouths of his returners as the Braves aim to establish a new culture of winning.

“When you see a coach who puts his heart and soul into this, it makes you give a little bit more,” Murray said. “This isn’t just some part-time job for me. I put my heart and soul into this. You know, I just feel for my seniors. They’ve done everything I’ve asked. I just love those kids.”

If the Braves and their dedicated coach plan to be back in this same position next season, they’ll be leaning on contributions from freshman standouts like Tommy Crist, Jack Duffy and Cushing as well as sophomore Connor Machado and junior Miles Williams. But they will miss the contributions of seniors Jordan Bowman-Davis, Michael Fitzgerald, Owen Benson, Patrick Dold, Colby Bates, Kevin Raybould and Gleeson.

“I just want to say thank you to all our seniors for all the effort they put into this program the past four years,” Cushing said. “I think we’ve got a bright future ahead of us. It’s sour and it hurts. But I think next year, we’ll come back stronger and better.”

As Coach Murray tells, the difference next year will be the effort the young Braves put into their offseason workout regimen.

“It’s all about the weight room. We’ve got to become ready to play physically,” he said. “We had a lot of freshmen this year who were there talent-wise, but physically were a step slower than the guys you saw on the field today on Novato. It’s just about putting in the time in the weight room to be ready for a full varsity year. Especially with how far into playoffs we’d like to be playing.”

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