SALEM — Eddie Ranuska stood under the shelter of the stands at Salem High School on Saturday afternoon, the sheets of rain and gloomy skies signaling the end of the season for his E.C. Glass lacrosse team.

“This is family,” Ranuska said, watching as his players exited the stadium, some with their heads hung low, others with eye-black smeared across their faces, all of them soaking wet and thinking about how a morning that began with such promise could end with such heart-wrenching disappointment.

“I look at those kids like little brothers,” a solemn Ranuska added, almost fighting back tears.

Many of those players, seniors like Matthew Gallagher, Wyatt Hamilton and Andrew Kayes, were playing youth lacrosse as 7- and 8-year-olds when Ranuska first began coaching in the area. They were among the first kids he led as a 19-year-old coach.

Wait until they get in high school, the coach told himself back then, and we’ll win state championships together.

They did, last year. Glass entered Salem High hoping to defend its 2018 Class 4 state title Saturday morning, but Riverside dampened the mood from the outset.

The Rams scored almost at will, setting the game’s tone, and then continued pouring it on, like the rain that pounded onto the field’s artificial turf.

Down 8-2 at halftime, Glass’ hopes appeared slim. By the end of the third quarter, the eight-goal deficit was insurmountable. By the fourth, reality set in: Riverside was going to win another state championship by doing the same thing it did in 2017 — upending E.C. Glass.

The dream of two in a row died a soggy death in the 1 hour and 45 minutes between first whistle and final horn. Sometimes, though, losing a championship makes you appreciate the one you have a little more. So amid the disappointment, there were also memories of the successes: a 2018 state title, three straight trips to the championship game and the dismantling of many of Glass’ opponents the last two seasons.

But a family doesn’t need accolades to forge a bond. Sometimes family is everyone working together and giving their all to make things work.

“Of course I hoped we would win some more [state championships],” Ranuska, a Long Island, New York, native, said. “But this was the group that kept me in Lynchburg, kept me staying here, kept me wanting to fight for E.C. Glass lacrosse, because I knew these kids were locked in, and I knew they were gonna do everything they could, just like me.”

For Gallagher, the day started with a loss on the game’s first faceoff. The reigning Class 4 player of the year made some adjustments and ended up winning 12 of 20 battles in the X. Riverside, he said, kept Glass from establishing a rhythm on offense and was tough in every aspect. Then the senior began talking about his four years in a Hilltoppers uniform.

“We created a brotherhood,” he said. “I’m an only child, so [lacrosse] created new friends.”

In 2016, this senior class’ first season on varsity, Glass went 12-7. “We weren’t very good,” Gallagher said.

But they soon got the hang of varsity lacrosse, reeling off 18 wins the next year, going 21-0 in 2018 and finishing with a 17-3 record this year.

Asked to put his career into perspective after Saturday’s loss, Hamilton called it surreal. The senior was injured most of the season, only to come back for the final nine games and unleash an eye-popping 19 goals and 29 assists in that span.

“I’ll get to, fortunately, play with Matthew next year at Washington and Lee,” he said. “And Andrew is going to Clemson. Hopefully he can play club and we can stay close and play together in summer leagues. But it’s sad. It’s sad to think that it’s over. But it was enjoyable for what it was.”

The day was frustrating for Glass, make no mistake about that. Riverside, with its five Division I recruits, was dominant. Its attacking midfielders were smooth, its defense solid and its goalie, Josh Ruwe, almost impenetrable.

Success comes and goes. Ranuska knows that. Sandwiched between Glass’ only lacrosse state championships are two title-game losses, and those to the same team.

But the coach had more than wins and losses on his mind Saturday.

“You want to go out on a higher note,” he said, “but these guys, they’ll be doing bigger things in their lives than playing in the state championship game. And that’s really what’s more important.”

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Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.

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