Hampton High School's move from the WPIAL's Division II to Division I in boys lacrosse was not without risks for the Talbots.
After all, a trip to the postseason was all but a given for the team in previous seasons. The Talbots had won three of the first four WPIAL Division II championships and finished second in 2010.
Trips to the postseason were not the only motivation for Hampton. The Talbots wanted to see if they could compete against a higher level of competition. And under first-year coach Randy Burns, Hampton is poised to advance to the WPIAL Division I tournament this month.
Before Wednesday's section finale against Butler Area, Hampton was 9-4 overall and 4-2 in Division I, Section 2 a grouping primarily made up of teams from northern Allegheny County and southern Butler County. Through Tuesday, Hampton was ranked No. 4 among all Western Pennsylvania teams by laxpower.com.
Through Tuesday, Shady Side Academy and North Allegheny were tied for the section lead, both with 5-1 section records. The Talbots and Franklin Regional, the only team from the eastern suburbs in this section, were tied for third place followed by Pine-Richland (3-3).
Hampton defeated old rival Greensburg Central Catholic, 10-2, two weeks ago. When the Talbots were winning their three WPIAL Division II championships, the Centurions were the title-game opponent all three times.
Then the Talbots traveled to McCandless on May 1 for what shaped up to be a crucial showdown against then No. 8-ranked North Allegheny in a section game. The Tigers, who have since moved up to No. 5 in the laxpower rankings, handled Hampton, 14-6.
Despite that loss, Hampton assistant coach Sam Happel said the Talbots have proven they belong in Division I based on the team's performance against four ranked opponents.
Those included an 8-5 loss to Shady Side Academy; a 5-4 loss to Peters Township, the top-ranked boys team in Western Pennsylvania according to the Post-Gazette and Laxpower.com; and victories against No. 6 Pine-Richland, 7-6, and No. 10 Franklin Regional, 11-9.
He believed the team showed its mettle early with a 10-6 victory against section rival Seneca Valley on April 3.
Peters Township coach Mike McBride lauded the Talbots' debut in Division I, noting that the team had played some Division I teams in previous seasons.
"They've played at this level for a while, and they are holding their own," he said. "They have some good players, and they held our offense to five goals."
Experience has been crucial for the team, Happel said.
"We have 12 to 13 players on our team who have been playing together for a while," said Happel, who was commenting in Burns' stead while the head coach was out of town on a business trip. "But I did think we'd be competitive against Division I teams."
The Talbots learned from their losses to Shady Side and Peters Township.
"In the second half against Shady Side, we did things a lot better than we did in the first half," the coach said. "By the time we played Peters, we felt we could compete against a Division I team, and we put ourselves in a position to play well enough to win Division I games. We didn't beat those teams, but we played well against them."
The experience of playing at the sport's highest level for Western Pennsylvania's boys teams has been educational, Happel said.
"You will find that some Division I teams might have some down years," he said. "But that doesn't happen very often. Most Division I teams are very solid. In Division II, there are some newer teams, and it takes awhile for them to be competitive."
If there were any first-year jitters, the Talbots were able to deal with them.
"I think we're happy with where we are," Happel said. "We had not been in Division I before, but I thought we'd be able to compete because we'd play some Division I teams the past few years when we were in Division II. We wanted to play at a high level, and that's what Division I is."
Playing in Division I, Section 2 makes a good fit, Happel believes.
"We thought we could compete in this section," he said. "But we had no way of knowing how it would turn out."
Senior attack Andy DeMichiei leads a balanced scoring attack for the Talbots. Other top scorers include senior attack Luke Happel, senior midfielder Nick Dudenas, senior attack John Nigro, junior midfielder Joe Holleran and sophomore midfielder Nick Grabowski.
Hampton had scored 132 goals in its first 13 games. Defensively, the Talbots had surrendered 88 goals. The team has scored 10 or more goals in a game on eight occasions.
DiMichiei is the Talbots' top player, earning All-America honors a year ago. A Marquette recruit, he is likely to be a repeat honoree again this season.
The Talbots have one more game against a ranked foe. They will meet Cleveland St. Ignatius, the No. 5 team in Ohio, on Saturday.
"We're playing them in the Fisher House Charity Lacrosse Showcase at The Hawken School in Chesterland, Ohio," Happel said. "It's a one-day charity event, and there will be five varsity high school games that day. We're going to be the only team there from Western Pennsylvania."