From the Bleachers

From the Bleachers

 

 

 

 

From the Bleachers: When Talent Meets Heart

 

            Wow again!

            Not Wow in surprise we were victorious, but Wow that we had no idea how scintillating a non-Overtime could be. Wow in the way it unfolded. Wow in the electric atmosphere. Wow in the meeting of talent and heart. Wow, its possible to play in the sun!

            Those of us who sat in the frigid bleachers in February, March, and even April witnessed drama on a weekly basis. We shivered as Virginia took a broken play and broke our hearts—yet again—in the waning seconds. Our teeth rattled as Villanova took advantage of their icy turf to put an overtime goal in when we thought we had them. Howling winds against St. Johns, torrential downpours against Delaware, and a ridiculous blizzard against St. Joes did not break our will. We were still bundled up in a nail-biter victory over Penn State in triple OT. The strongest steel goes through the hottest flame we heard growing up, and perhaps the strongest will is molded from the most challenging elements. After all, a Dragon’s fire comes from within.

            Winning may be a tonic that cures and bonds. But you need scars to have something to heal. Drexel has plenty of them over the decades. Good teams, and some great players, have won and lost wearing blue and yellow. But never in the NCAA Championships Big Dance, televised nationally. No Drexel team ever had as much pressure to perform as this 2014 version of Dragonlaxers.

            After such emotional intensity post a triple overtime victory at Hofstra, on the heels of another overtime semi final in the CAA Championships against Towson, was there gas in the tank to take on the Ivy League Champion University of Pennsylvania? Only the players and coaches in that locker room at Vidas Field knew. And even that group had to have a natural bout of butterflies the size of Pterodactyls.

            On this day—a hot one for once—at epic Franklin Field, we found out the answer to this question and revealed a few new truths, too.

            First, we discovered we had a thriving student body. Second, it was unearthed we have an actual mascot (Mario the Dragon). Third, we have real life cheerleaders. Fourth, we were playing a home game, not an away game.

            What remained unanswered was how tight we would be and for how long, a quarter, half, or the whole game? With a raucous crowd, including the impressive Penn Band, it was expected we’d see nerves translate to turnovers and missed assignments. Emotion was put on the graphic “Keys to the Game” according to ESPNU analyst Matt Ward (Tewaaraton winner and National Champion for UVa) and announcer Mike Corey. They were correct.

            Before we had time to smear on the suntan lotion it was 2-0 to Penn. It wasn’t until almost half way through the first quarter before we stopped playing Hot Potato with the ball and got on the scoreboard. Sophomore Hank Brown, now fully healed from leg issues, took a feed from Cole Shafer and put all he had into a step-down shot to smoke Quaker goalie Brian Feeney and cut the lead in half. It may have been only the first goal, but it was a statement play. The shot was a rocket, and it wasn’t from our most heralded midfielder, Big Ben McIntosh. That first goal told Penn, our crowd, and North Americans from West Philly and Toronto to Laguna Beach that when Drexel puts the ball in the net it is with authority!

            Except for the few who were still thawing out from the winter in the bleachers, no one has seen the Drexel Dragons Men’s Lacrosse team. Quality teams like Albany know we are solid, but let’s face it, we are the best-kept secret, and perhaps the most underrated team, to play Division 1 lacrosse today.

            Critics will complain Penn was overrated in their tournament ranking (#4). This writer does not like Penn’s limited schedule of only twelve regular season games (versus our 14 and Duke’s 17, for instance), but RPI does not lie. The numbers speak to the quality of the teams you play, their record, the records of the teams they play, and the differential of scores. Penn did not win the Ivy League by wearing cool helmets—they won by earning it on the field with blood, sweat, and tears against the best of the best.

            With Penn up 3-1, holding the ball in their sticks and a man advantage, the game was on the verge of getting out hand. True, we have come back by three the last two games in thrilling fashion, but how many holes can a team dig and crawl out of? This enormous stage made it a different conversation.

            The Drexel Man Down unit not only killed the penalty, but also set up Ryan Belka in transition, a dangerous guy with the ball on the full sprint, who ripped one over the head of the highly decorated Ivy League Goalie of the Year like an exclamation point. Instead of 4-1 it became 3-2, and our two goals were with such authority you could argue they were like body blows in a heavyweight-boxing match, not knockouts, but crippling to the anatomy and psyche in the early rounds. Credit Miles Thomas, Paul Harrison, Jake Kiernan, and a Klunder. The brothers Klunder always do the dirty work, never complain, and get the job done. So whether Jason or Jordon was on the field for a particular Man Down is irrelevant. This was the first of 4 Man Down penalty kills, enormous in a game of this magnitude.

            Note: the first penalty was for holding, but the second penalty was on Tyler Houchins for absolutely ruining a dodging Penn player. You could hear the collision throughout the stadium. As a former Dman back-in-the-day (when it was still allowed to nail people—if not encouraged), this writer loved the hit, thought it was clean, and moreso because it set the tone Drexel would not be pushed around. There is a statue of NFL great Chuck Bednarik inside Franklin Field, and old “Concrete Charlie” would have loved that hit and the physicality of this game.

            Unfortunately, the smackdown incensed Penn, and they took retribution shortly thereafter by clobbering our star freshman Shafer with a brutal shot to the head. And although Cole is as tough as they get and returned to the game briefly, it concerned our trainers enough to keep him on the sideline for the entire second half. To have a 50+ point producer on the bench might squelch hope for most teams. Not these Dragons.

            Penn’s star Attackman Nick Doktor found the back of the net to make it 4-2 with nine seconds to go in the first quarter. It would have been much worse had our sophomore goalie Will Gabrielsen not made 5 saves in the opening salvo, a couple of which were demoralizing to Penn because they were point blank stuffs. So, again, instead of being down as much as 9-2, we got a face off to end the quarter trailing by just 2. 

            We know who Nick Saputo is and what he brings to the table. You saw it all year if you went to a game. His 19-22 face-off domination against Towson in the CAA Semi was an All American performance as stated previously here on WPF. But how many people were at that game? Take a guess. Wrong, 331 is the correct answer.

            Well, this time there was nearly ten times that (2852) in the stands with millions more at home watching on television. Saputo had already spooked Penn’s face off man Danny Feeney, the twin of goalie Danny, so badly he jumped early, putting the ball in Nick’s stick with 0:09 on the clock. Without hesitation, Nick rushed the goal and fed it inside, yet the ball was batted down, causing it to pop up off the turf into the air as the seconds ticked away. Only instant replay could truly capture the incredible athletic ability of Saputo as he snagged the ball while getting decked, and somehow through sheer will and determination got a shot off towards the goal, while his body was perpendicular to the ground. Not only did he get the shot off, he managed to place it in the far corner off a bouncer past keeper Feeney’s sprawling legs, making it 4-3. Another body-blow to Penn’s gut.

            Despite the temporary shocker, Penn gathered themselves and continued to play solid in the second quarter, moving the ball deliberately and methodically to set up an Iso (Isolation = One guy goes to the net solo, unassisted) to make it 5-3 before Nick Trizano cut the lead back down to 5-4 with a bold Iso move of his own. This is when the bodies flew and both teams saw themselves man down. The difference was Penn took a man down kill and converted it into a longstick goal as Drexel was caught napping while substituting players from the box. Having a pole score is always a lift to a team. Having a pole score while man down is a major momentum boost. Was the game slipping away from the Dragons? The Penn Band, also known as The Huge, sure sounded like it.

            Down 6-4 with 1:16 to go in the half, Saputo took the face off and gave Drexel possession. With just 17 seconds remaining sophomore Jules Raucci showed the lax world his ankle-breaking split-dodge-crossover-move, leaving his Penn defender whiffing at air. Jules then absolutely rips an upper to make it a 6-5 ballgame. Fist to the ribs…

            That probably would have been enough to build on in the locker room, considering Penn had controlled much of the half, but Saputo had other thoughts in mind. Being close wasn’t gonna cut it. It was time to make history.

            Pinch & Pop, one of Nick’s favorite moves, worked to perfection and before Penn could say, “Cover him!” Saputo was throwing his body, and the ball, towards the Penn cage. To be clear, Nick didn’t just lean into the shot, he dove while shooting. When the net burst into motion the Drexel crowd lost it. Down 6-4 had become 6-6 with just 12 seconds to go in the half. Our cheerleaders were jumping up and down, the mascot waving our flag, and the parents were delirious. This was an uppercut to the Quaker’s chin.

            To our utter amazement, and for West Philly lore upon which legends are made, Saputo was still not finished. Again, he bullied Feeney and snagged the ball on the run to fling himself, and the ball, towards the cage, this time with an overhand rocket that stings the net inside pipe. First Team CAA is impressive, but this a First Team All American sequence. In fact, this is the kind of play that little lax groms around the world look up their parents and say, “I want to be a face-off guy!”

            To say our crowd was losing it would be the worst understatement ever construed. It was the knockout blow. The reeling Quakers were only saved by-the-bell of halftime.

            You cannot literally say the game was over then and there because a half was yet to be played and the score was just a one-goal game (7 to 6), but it was. The Fire that a Dragon breathes is the hottest ever, and when the third quarter started the turf would be further scorched. From Penn’s goal with a minute to go in the half until 9:42 in the fourth quarter, 21 minutes, Drexel outscored the Quakers 10-1. Defensemen Matt Dusek, Houchins, Thomas, and Mohawk-shaved Kiernan were a buzz saw, with LSMs Markel Nelson and Jake Gennosa augmenting the fury. Gabrielsen added to his 7 first half saves with three more in the third quarter, nearly all from in close, and one that was Sports Center Top 10 Plays worthy, a diving across the crease stuff, followed by another brick wall body block.

            While the D was nearly invincible, the O was tearing Quakers apart limb by limb. Jared Boudreau, our senior from Vermont, cranked not one, but two whippies hard and high. Raucci added a second goal on his day (to go with 2 assists), and sophomore Chris Frederick got his first goal of the year by jamming one in from close range. At that point it was 14-8 and all that was left was the Fat Lady singing, Coach Brian Voelker getting a Gatorade shower, and Big Ben jamming in another hattrick to break the All-Time Single Season Goals Record (46) at DU. Forty six goals is impressive by any standard, but from the midfield position it is extraordinary. Glad to hear the ESPNU team in the booth acknowledged exactly that, and further note that McIntosh is the #1 scoring Middie in the country this season.

            Leadership by senior Captains Klunder and McIntosh drove freshmen like Joe Rainoldi to embrace their positions whether superstar or role player. The sophomores from Mason Pynn to the starters likewise bought-in and supported each other from week to week. Seeing sophomore Cal Winkleman enthusiastically charge the field to hug Shafter after Cole’s game winner in the CAA Championship shows that these guys are in it together, regardless of whether they played in this year’s triple OT victory or last year’s triple OT victory.

            On this Mother’s Day the young men with dragons on their helmets gave their moms the biggest gift of all; sheer joy. A mother doesn’t need to know the Native Americans invented Baggattaway as a way to honor their Gods and to avoid full-scale wars. All mothers really need to know is that their sons, and daughters, are happy. If camaraderie, passion, and life lessons like putting someone other than yourself first are the catalyst for a smile, most mothers will find bliss in that, too. We thank you mothers for always being there for us as players, coaches, fans, and alumni. The search for a child’s joy is why these loving moms show up early, stay late, and bring food regardless of climate change or circumstance. We hope the smiles on Sunday were a giant, “I Love You, Mom.”

            Regarding lax, we are not finished!

            There are four games going to be played this weekend for a birth to Championship Weekend in Baltimore. Remarkably, watching us on Sunday will be Syracuse, Loyola, Cornell, Virginia, UNC, Harvard, Air Force, and Penn who at least got to play in this year’s tournament. Excellent teams like Princeton, Hofstra, Fairfield, Penn State, UMBC, UMass, High Point, Yale, Lehigh, Army, UMass, Towson, Villanova, and St. Joes will continue to watch us on TV in the NCAA Quarterfinals. All 67 Division 1 teams will watch, as will all the other levels in college, high school, club, and professional. Drexel is playing. It is an honor to be among the final 8. Who thought we’d be the second game of a double-header in the quarters playing after Johns Hopkins versus Duke? Actually, some of us did, but it is still awesome.

            Denver is loaded with highly recruited talent, trained in world-class facilities, and coached by six-time national champion (all at Princeton, the most by any active coach) Bill Tierney. On paper they are big favorites. Just like Hofstra and Penn were. But they were not undefeated this year. Indeed, Penn beat Denver 12-10, one of Denver’s only 2 losses in an impressive 15-2 campaign. Denver is 3-2 against Top 20 competition this year, and we are 3-3.

            But you know what? We have Big Ben, Belks, Jules, Cole, Vermont, Duce, T$, Miles, The Jakes, The Klunders, Mace & Clark, Triz, backed by clutch goalie Gabes. And our team has a not-so-secret weapon, a nuke named Saputo.

            Our mascot breathes Fire. Our players breathe Fire. Our parents and alumni breathe Fire. Many pioneers burned in fires as they tread west long ago, but this time they may find themselves scorched on the east coast at Delaware Stadium on Sunday at 2:30pm. Come add flames in person or from your couch watching on national TV (ESPNU). Either way, we remain proud to be part of the Dragonlax family and all that it represents.

            Dare to dream. We are only three wins from being National Champions. Why not us? We have the talent and we have the heart. That’s all a team needs for 60 minutes. Good luck Dragons. It’s right there in front of you. Go ahead and take it!

 

- Anonymous Dragonlax Fan