There are games where it is easy to determine what might happen. The top teams tend to play each other down in the Southeast corner of the state, with two recent exceptions . . . STA has not scheduled SA in the regular season for about 4 years now and STA also has not played Benjamin since the 2014 Final Four.
Last year in the semifinals STA handled SA easily but two years ago Benjamin handled STA easily in the semis, so there’s no real insight to be gained about familiarity.
STA comes into the game undefeated and, as the old saying goes, battle tough. Mentally strong.
Benjamin comes in on a late season roll and as healthy as they’ve been all year.
It’s a very difficult game to handicap. Records clearly favor St. Thomas but their schedule this year looked better on paper before the season than it played out. This is in contrast to prior years where the schedule was tougher than thought. Benjamin’s schedule was similar in that it looked better on paper earlier. No real advantage either way there.
The firepower is aligned differently.
Benjamin’s Top 6 of Andrew Packer, Colin O’Hare, Cameron Thompson, Griffin Bowie, Christian Cropp and Michael Buttelman (Will Nicklaus is out) are as talented as any group in the state. They tend to feed off each other but there’s some differing characteristics among them. Cropp and Buttelman bring size while the other four tend to be dodgers that rely on quickness and patterns. In particular Cropp can stretch a defense, as he showed last year against SA with a 17-yard plus laser at the end of the third. Andrew Packer has relied a lot on quickness to get space and this year he has shown a little more tendency to take the outside shot. O’Hare tends to work the off ball movement more this season and Thompson has been more of the feeder from behind. What has made a difference this year I believe is that Bowie has been more aggressive with the ball and has added a depth to the available options for Coach Shane Rye. Late in the season the team got on a roll offensively and the variety of attack has shown through. Very hard to game plan against. There’s a fluidity to the offense that can be adaptable.
St. Thomas Aquinas has what I think is more of a structured approach to their offense and they work that structure quite well. It all starts with the twosome of middie Louie Yovino and attackman Kevin Crowley. They tend to compliment each other more than operate together. When you look at how they play you see the old equivalent of Army’s Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis (or for local Dolphin fans Csonka and Morris . . . there’s no Kiick in this comparison), a Mr. Inside and a Mr. Outside. Yovino has MLL 2-point range and the offense is designed to give him plenty of looks. Because a defense has to respect his range that tends to open up some space down low and the STA attack is geared to take advantage of that. Yovino is not a one-trick pony as his vision and passing skills make him an all around weapon. Crowley can create his own shot and is particularly comfortable low on the left wing where he can go either way.
Where the STA offense is very effective is when the rest of the attack, Jimmy Harrington and Sam Khalil gets into a rhythm with their off ball movement. Khalil works the right side and is very patient with his cuts and is most effective when getting some space near the right crease. Harrington is more likely to work into the middle off ball but is also comfortable with the left wing on man up with medium range shooting. They also rely on transition and ride very hard to create it. Ethan Martin was a nice complimentary player as he would chip in some ball carrying and creating his own shot when a change of pace was needed. Nick Borodiak and Chris Steffans provided some offense in a supportive role.
Both teams ride the clear well and both teams are ground ball hawks.
If you want to key in on one thing to give you an idea of how the game is going watch the loose balls in the middle of the field . . . the team that wins those battles will be a favorite to advance to the finals.
Neither team is known as a dominant faceoff squad but each works the wing play hard. STA’s Joey Guglielmo will likely have a small advantage going in. Benjamin’s Michael Lobosco has chipped in as a freshman and Packer has taken faceoffs in the past when Coach Rye has looked for an experienced hand for that role a few times each game. Look for him to take a few early ones to try to set tempo.
Because these teams have so much star power on offense they sometimes are overlooked defensively but there’s plenty in the cupboard there too.
First thing to note is how rapidly last year’s Benjamin defense has improved this year. There were issues last season with communication and coordination (those who remember last year’s SA-Benjamin broadcast will note how often commentator Jake Reed would call out those two issues, along with overly aggressive positioning) and goalie Austin Michels was going through his growing pains as a sophomore trying to fill the big shoes of Anthony Cicio. That defense has learned their lesson well this season and Michels has raised his game. Michels is a relatively short goalie, like Cicio, but he covers the top of the net well. West Rudolph, Chris Raso, Chris O’Connor, Shane Campbell, Ethan Denenberg and Ryan Frankel form the core of the long pole squad.
STA has an All American goalie in Michael Adler and he has a sterling season in the games I’ve seen (well, he only faced 6 shots last game so we’ll throw that one out) and one thing he brings that Michels does not is an ability to carry the ball and clear himself. I doubt there will be a lot of that need in this game unless Benjamin game plans shutting off outlets and if they do Adler will be more than willing to get the touch up himself. The defense suffered a big loss before the season with the loss of freshman stand out Noah Cash but the athleticism is what jumps out at you. Where it really shows is in the trail checks as the STA defense does not quit even when beat. Brody Speno and Alex Martinez lead the long poles for the Pirates.
One facet of the defensive approach is how well the STA middies play defensively. Yovino is almost as good defensively as he is offensively and it was a rare game I’ve witnessed where he didn’t cause a turnover or two and then transition becomes a particular chore for their opponents.
But the quickness of Benjamin is more than what the STA defense has faced in the past as they have mostly played offenses that have not had the team quickness they will face tomorrow. STA will have to handle dodging from a spread out attack and that will also be a defining factor in who wins.
Even the coaching contrasts are interesting. Coach Terry Crowley has been at the helm of a long time program for many years while Coach Rye has been in place three years now. Long Island versus Mid-Atlantic in where they learned the game. Neither has yet lifted the FHSAA trophy but both have reached the championship game the last two years.
If Lake Highland loses today then we will have a first-time winner no matter what as Ponte Vedra has not won before either. A winner from the south half of the bracket is quite the achievement this year. STA would have gone through Stoneman, Oxbridge, Gulliver, this game and the other semi winner to hoist the trophy if it happens, a very worthy champion. Benjamin had it a little easier if they raise the trophy as MCC and Barron Collier were nice teams but not quite the caliber this season of the southeast quadrant.
As for a prediction it is almost silly to try. I got the right thought with the STA-Oxbridge game going into OT, but with the wrong team. Picking an OT winner is a flip of a coin in lacrosse anyway. The only real advantage I see right now is that STA has been able to run the table the last two regular seasons and there’s a little more confidence that comes from that they can drawn on. It would not surprise me to see another OT game today. And if that happens what difference does picking a team make? The teams have not played the last two years so the seniors this year have only a fleeting memory of how to play their fellow competitors.
I’m just going to sit back and watch (and cover) what should be a fast-paced intense back and forth game as each time looks to score in transition early and often before it settles down in the second quarter. I suggest all fans in the area might want to come out and do the same.