from the Vault by Lee Roggenburg
Note: My first championship weekend was in West Orange, for the rubber match between Lake Highland and Saint Andrew’s. The teams had swapped 2011 and 2012, with LHP finally ending the lengthy SA championship run in 2012, and SA regaining the title the following year in Port St. Lucie. What made these three years so special was that the kids played on Team Florida together, and the parents knew each other so well. LHP had finally climbed the mountain, and this was the start of their own run of titles in a row.
One interesting thing about this game is that I still have framed a picture Ernie Mahler took of his son Grant, in the last 10 seconds of this game. It hangs in my office and is one of the great shots he’s ever taken. Enjoy the memory!
This one did live up to its’ promise. I could think of a hundred clichés that would fit; it’s not really the words, it’s the emotion that can’t so easily be captured. Two sets of senior-dominated teams that have slugged it out over and over again to produce the best lacrosse this state has ever seen. Trading the championship back and forth; playing together and against each other in the summer, all coming to a wonderful climax Saturday night before a large and boisterous crowd of families (many of which have watched their kids grow together and have established their own friendships over the years), students who knew how to act (vocal, supportive and as young adults) and just pure lacrosse fans.
The respect and even love that many of these kids have for each other, basically having grown up together and played together, spring and summer, meant they knew each other so well, making it the type of game that you had to earn everything, and earn it with more than 100% effort. And this game was a masterpiece; a game where the smallest opening had to be exploited, and exploited quickly, or it would go away.
And Lake Highland made one more play than Saint Andrews over the 48 minutes. It was just that damn close. In the end it came down to LHP making SA play its’ game just a little more than SA wanted.
Saint Andrews started the game like it wanted to duplicate its’ Friday masterpiece, with Andy Wheeler potting two goals in the opening three minutes to take a quick 2-0 lead. His first was off a left alley dodge on a high-to-high shot that LHP goalie Adam Sawicki looked to have difficulty picking up. His second came from a cross-crease feed from Jake Levine, with Wheeler pretty much having a dunk shot. At this point one started to wonder would this game to take a direction similar to both semifinals games but LHP was made of sterner stuff. Both of these schools prepared themselves for the playoffs by scheduling very difficult schedules; both played top Maryland schools and the best teams in the state, so while their records might not have been the best in the state coming into the game they were the best prepared to handle adversity in pressure situations when the need was called for.
LHP was able to slow play down in the period in order to regain its footing and they cashed in when Will Wolfson fired home a shot on a left alley dodge to make it 2-1 at 1:57. Ryan Johnson tied the game with 55 seconds to go in the period, firing home a low shot from the left wing past SA goalie Corey Etcheverry to make it 2-2 after one. Both goalies had made big saves in the middle of the period as both teams hit the net with their attempts; SA with a perfect 5 for 5 and LHP with 5 of 8. LHP had dominated possession time in the period, mostly thanks to Max Parker’s face-off advantage, winning 4 of 5 in the first.
The teams settled down into a defensive slugfest in the second quarter. The key difference in the second was that LHP’s defense was able to harass SA’s shooters, and SA was only able to hit the net 3 times out of 10 attempts in the quarter, but SA saved their best for last. LHP took the lead with 6:34 left on Billy Roll’s unassisted tally, curling from behind the right side of the cage, beyond goal-line extended and whipping a high shot into the corner to make it 3-2. LHP’s patience on offense and clamp down defense held SA scoreless for an incredible 21 minutes before SA’s own pride and determination kicked in. Conor Whipple took a crease-side feed and face-dodged his defender to end the drought with 57 seconds left in the half to tie it at three. Then Reid McCool picked up a groundball after a multi-player scramble and took off alone down the middle of the LHP defense, firing home a straight-on shot with :07 on the clock to make it 4-3 Scots at the half.
A goal like that would be a killer and momentum swinger most nights and the third started with Grant Mahler making a terrific solo effort, running down the right side before dodging towards the middle, beating two defenders and beating Sawicki at the 10:55 mark to push the lead to 5-3. But once again LHP responded with a defensive stand of their own; giving their offense a chance to chip away at the lead. And within a period of just 5 minutes LHP struck for three goals to regain the lead at 6-5.
Roll scored his second on a curl from the right side, beating Etcheverry on a low shot at 9:46. SA was called for a penalty on the play but was able to kill the EMO, but to no avail as Wolfson tied it with his second, dodging from up top and bouncing the shot home at 7:56. Then Devon Lewis put LHP back in front, cutting to the middle from the left side and getting his hands free for a bullet at 5:19 to end the third.
LHP continued the run in the fourth with Kyle Richbourg scoring unassisted (while the official statistics might indicate otherwise, I had LHP scoring all of their goals unassisted) on a curl in front from off the left side of the cage to make it 7-5 with 8:15 left. At this point SA had gone another 15 minutes without scoring as LHP’s defense was able to continue its’ tight play. But once again SA showed its penchant for poise under pressure and Wheeler managed to even the score with two goals of his own, the first at 7:59 unassisted, picking up a loose ball off a scramble and dodging down the middle before veering left and firing home a low shot to make the lead one. Wheeler then took Levine’s feed in the middle after Levine dodged down the left side and brought the SA crowd to its feet with his tying goal at 7:01. So here we were again, tied at 7 midways through the fourth in a real heavyweight slugfest.
But Devon Lewis put LHP up to stay with a marvelous finish, taking a feed while coming from behind the cage, taking some steps out beyond goal line extended and placing a bounce shot in the cage with 6:10 to go for the eventual game winner.
And then we really got down to nail-biting time.
After regaining possession LHP attempted to run out the clock and were successful for about the first three and a half minutes, until SA’s defense forced a turnover on a stall warning. But an off-course pass turned the ball back over to LHP, who again attempted to run clock. This time though SA was able to regain quickly but the ensuing SA possession ended in the ball being stripped. Again, LHP tried to run clock, but SA again forced the turnover and SA had a final chance with about 30 seconds left. After a final loose ball scramble near midfield SA was given possession with about nine seconds left. Mahler forced through a double team about ten yards out and somehow got the ball off to the crease area where, SA’s players actually got a stick on it, forcing Sawicki to make a crease-side save in the last second of the game.
What a way to end this game.
We might still be playing if it had gone in.
For LHP this is their second title in three years for the still young program. Congratulations to Coach Spaulding, his staff, his players and the entire LHP lacrosse community for this win.
For SA a bittersweet end to another season of the high level of lacrosse that set the tone for this state for many years. Congrats to Coach Dawson and his staff, his players and the SA lacrosse community for giving us another playoff run.
For both teams, we fans will really miss this class of seniors. Irish and Whipple, Mahler and Lewis, Roll and Wheeler, Johnson and Etcheverry, Phillips and McCool, Ranta, Reall, Bartzokis, Weprin and all the rest from both teams. Thanks for a whole encyclopedia of wonderful memories. On to the next level, good luck to all of you and we hope to see at least a few of you over the next four years playing a few NCAA tournament games on the tube. This state will not likely see a rivalry like this one, with this group of kids for a long time to come. Shame on those lacrosse fans who didn’t at least see one of these championship games; it’s your loss.
I’ll pass on the game and individual stats this time. This game wasn’t about them, it was about the game itself.
It told its own story well enough.