By Adam Warner
Last April, during the late stages of a typical back and forth game between Mercyhurst and NYIT, Lakers head coach Chris Ryan called over to NYIT coach Bill Dunn on the sideline.
Before greeting his players for a crucial fourth quarter timeout, Ryan asked his fellow colleague, “How come we always end up playing tight games like this?”
While both coaches knew the answer deep down, they could only shake their heads during that moment. Once again, the Division II titans were in the midst of a riveting late-season match-up with everything on the line.
“Like last year’s game, these match-ups are always close,” said Ryan about the rivalry. “We always circle this one on the schedule. It carries a lot of weight for the selection process at the end of the year. Why would you have it any other way?”
Thanks to a pair of clutch goals in the final two minutes from Ian Wild and Kyle Kallay, Mercyhurst went on to win that 2011 game 10-8 and eventually claim the Div. II national title. NYIT, on the other hand, missed out on a trip to the NCAA tournament for the third straight year. In a lacrosse campaign leaving very little room for error, this annual showdown often serves as a springboard for one team and a season-ender for the other.
To put the intense rivalry into perspective, the Lakers and Bears have been championship contenders for at least nine straight lacrosse campaigns, often facing each other in the later stages of the regular season to determine league supremacy. NYIT is 91-24 overall since ’04 with a pair of NCAA titles, while Mercyhurst is 104-20 and has one championship to its name. And while the Lakers have won eight of nine head-to-head contests dating back to ‘04, each margin of victory has been no greater than four goals, including six games decided by two goals or fewer.
This Saturday at 1 p.m., the two programs meet up one more time for a regular season matinee. As usual, the stakes are extremely high. With three games left on the schedule and both teams at the top of the league standings, a victory can pave the way for an ECC crown and NCAA tournament berth. All the while, a loss could signal the end to an otherwise successful campaign.
“We are well matched year in and year out and this season is no exception,” Dunn said. “I think we’re similar teams, so it should be another tight game. We expect a dogfight on Saturday.”
Although blessed with tremendous depth and balance, Dunn’s squad faces an uphill battle this weekend with top scorer Luke Miller sidelined. The standout freshman posted 17 goals and 27 assists for the Bears before suffering an ACL injury last Wednesday against Molloy. NYIT (11-2 overall, 6-1 ECC) will turn to its well-rounded roster and experienced leaders to fill the void. Midfielder Brandon Gamblin leads the team with 29 goals, senior Jason Smith is a 15-goal, 15-assist scorer, and sophomore midfielder Bobby Calhoun has also added 15 scores.
According to Dunn, many other players are now seeing increased minutes. Luckily, with likes of Gamblin and Smith on the offensive end, plus the emergence of key role players in Cory Triola and Sean Rimmer, the Bears appear to be equipped with the depth necessary to overcome their recent bout of adversity.
“When we started out this season, I thought we would get better as a team as the year went along, and I think we’ve done that,” said Dunn, whose team is currently on a seven-game winning streak. “We also have a number of seniors who have really helped our younger players come along. This has been a big boost for us as far as maturing throughout the season.”
On the other side, Mercyhurst (10-0, 7-0) is riding high thanks to a 17-game winning streak that dates back to last season’s championship campaign. On top of that, the Lakers are perhaps the healthiest – both mentally and physically – they’ve ever been at this point in the season during Ryan’s tenure as head coach.
Armed with a dynamic roster that features explosive offensive weapons and stout defenders, the Lakers will be hard-pressed to falter. Aside from former standout Matt Scherer, who graduated last spring, the core of Hurst’s defense is still intact from last year. In ’12, the unit has allowed just 5.0 goals per game this season, good for third best in the nation.
“They are well coached, well disciplined, and don’t make a lot of mistakes,” Dunn said. “They’ll also capitalize on your mistakes, and that’s a big reason why they’re so successful. It’s the secret to a successful program: Try to force the other team into turnovers and then take advantage. They do it really well.”
This week against the red-hot Bears, the Lakers will likely focus on winning several key position battles. Starting at the face-off X, both teams feature young specialists. In a game that’s expected to be defensive oriented and close all the way through, the squad that can secure more possessions will have a distinct advantage. Look for the match-ups between NYIT freshmen Nick Ferreiro and Patrick Starke and Lakers sophomore Mitch McAvoy to be a difference maker.
Also, expect a high-powered clash between fellow LSM’s Justin Annunziato and Gregory Bensman, arguably two of the best in the nation at their position. Boosted by hard-nosed teammates behind them, the standouts are proficient at disrupting their opponent’s attack and creating transition opportunities the other way.
“Our defensive core is athletic, tough, and the heart and soul of the team,” Ryan said. “Defense wins titles and we hope it’s a trend that continues.”
Meanwhile, a thrilling, down-to-the-wire game is another trend likely to continue this weekend. With these two streaking teams fighting for a league championship and postseason berth, the stage is set for another classic match-up in this storied rivalry.
Then again, the coaches wouldn’t want it any other way.
Adam Warner is a lacrosse correspondent for the ECC. Send him an e-mail at email@example.com.
ECC Men's Lacrosse Insider: Mercyhurst, NYIT Set for Crucial League Match-up on Saturday
By Adam Warner