From the Bleachers 

 

 

 

 

From the Bleachers: A CAA Championship & Beyond

Wow!

If you were at the game on Saturday night, or heard about it, or saw the videos, then you know what I mean. Our Dragonlaxers would not be denied! How they did it was worth explaining, but the result was simply Wow.

We knew heading into the CAA Championship that Hofstra would be tough. They’ve been to 17 NCAA tournaments, were 8-1 at home this season and they beat us 11-9 earlier this year in West Philly. We’d seen them move the ball around and patiently work for their shot, mostly inside stuffs and backdoor plays, and we had seen their top-notch goalie deny us. We knew there would be a big crowd and we knew it was going to take everything we had to come out on top. We knew, they knew, and the rest of the lax world knew Drexel had fielded many solid teams over the years, and were almost without question the best team whom never made it to the Big Dance.

What we didn’t know was if under all the pressure, with the chips down, under the bright lights, trailing by three late in the fourth quarter - for the second straight playoff game - whether our team could muster The Fire one last time to get over the most difficult of hurdles. What we didn’t know was if our seniors would lead and if our underclassmen would shine. What we failed to fathom was the drama that would unfold and how, despite losing our minds in the bleachers, our boys who became men this season would stand tall and come through in the clutch.

Big Ben McIntosh played like the All-American he was last year and will be again.  Like the CAA Player of the Year and Tewaaraton candidate by taking his game from rocket-launcher to feeding machine. Yes, Big Ben led the CAA in goals this season (42 heading into the game) and Hofstra knew it too. Thus, a pole followed him everywhere but the locker-room at halftime. Draw & Dish was the recipe and Big Ben acted as the master chef serving up 4 assists to go with his 1 goal.

Fellow senior Nick Trizano, a warrior who fought through injuries for most of the past two years, came through in the big game by jamming in a hattrick and sacrificing his body time and time again. On one sequence in the first half a shot was ripped and ricocheted off our sprawling goalie Will Gabrielsen to midfield.  Cole Shafer snagged the ball as he was being crushed by two Hofstra defenders out of bounds and somehow shoveled the rock backwards to a sprinting Triz who went hard to the goal and slammed it in. Triz was also hit and sent flying, only to roll and pop up with hands extended knowing the ball went in by the sound of our crowd and the confidence of a true attackman. Every Dragon on that play laid out and was rewarded. It's plays like this that you look back on and see they made a difference in an even game.

The same could be said of the unsung heroes like Tyler Houchins who guarded the CAA assist leader and First Teamer Sam Llinares, holding him to 1 point, just as he did against other stars this year (see St. Johns, Penn St., UMass, and Towson twice) and Matt Dusek, both of whom had 3 ground balls each. Those seniors showed once again a sense of urgency that resonated with the underclassmen. The short stick D partnership of Klunder, Klunder, Clark, & Pynn played their roles like NFL cornerbacks and safeties, getting the job done with almost no stats to prove it.

Less than five minutes remained and Hofstra led 10-7. Did we weather the storm or was it another solid year for Drexel that would come oh-so-close?

We suggested this was a team of destiny in past columns, and not just because we are fans and eternal optimists, but because the 2014 version of Men’s Lacrosse at Drexel is a well rounded squad, deep with talent at both ends of the field and in the middle. With 4:37 to go this proved correct as Big Ben found freshman sensation Shafer for his fourth goal of the evening. Nick Saputo, our star face-off stud, had his hands full during the contest yet when we needed him most he came through and kept the momentum in our favor leading to Triz score a minute later at 3:15 in the 4th quarter. Triz’s unassisted goal made it a 10-9 game.

And who would step up and tie the game? How about the guy who took control in the last playoff game against Towson to win it in overtime? That’s right, Ryan Belka. After another Saputo face-off win Belks went lefty down the left seem and when there was no decent shot circled back and went righty, whipping it past Hofstra keeper Chris Selva, a second team CAA selection.

Very little gets written about Goalies in this modern era where games are usually twenty-plus goals combined, but let’s give credit where credit is due. Selva played great. The junior made several saves from in close. But our goalie, sophomore Will Gabrielsen, made more saves (13 to 9), including 9 in the first half, and outshone his more documented counterpart. Those 13 saves put Gabrielsen #9 in the country for total saves and atop the CAA now the dust is settled. Selva and Gabrielsen played excellent on this night. To score, both teams needed to earn it.

In the first OT another underclassmen, sophomore Miles Thomas, had a caused turnover that kept the game alive to a second OT where Gabrielsen made a stop by remaining disciplined by hugging the pipe to thwart a Mike Malave rip. Remember Gabrielsen making a stop in the second OT versus Penn State to force a third OT victory? I bet his teammates do. Clutch by anybody’s standards.

Now in the 3rd OT we find Saputo again gobbling up his 10th ground ball on his 11th face-off win. After a smart timeout by Coaches Voelker and Ford, we see a new wrinkle, sophomore Jules Raucci, our ankle-breaking Middie, behind the net dodging a Hofstra shorty. Jules bolts hard to his left, and then swims right, just enough to get his hands free to fire the ball to Cole Shafer.

Shafer has had a memorable season. His no-look-over-the-head shot in the third quarter was ridiculous. I mean how many Drexel alums can claim to have 50 points in their freshmen season? Not many. And none have had the pleasure of cranking a low to high whippy in triple OT to win the school’s first CAA Championship and Automatic Qualifier to the NCAA Championships. Shafer did not disappoint. Indeed, Cole Shafer is now a legend in West Philly....

But is that it? Are we done? Hell no!

We not only get to play another game, we avoid a plane or bus to hostile environments like Denver, Notre Dame, Maryland, Virginia, and Loyola. Our Dragonlaxers get a pseudo-home game at Franklin Field against the Ivy League Champions, UPenn.

Like Drexel, UPenn made it to the NCAAs with hard work, talent, and sheer will. Penn has one of the only teams in recent memory who do not platoon their middies, using several lines of two-way, old school athletes who can stop at one end and shoot at the other. This will be a challenge for our offensive stars who will inevitably have to play D. Penn has Ivy League Goalie of the Year Brian Feeney, who like Gabrielsen, is from Summit, NJ, and Feeney’s twin Danny will keep Saputo busy at the face-off X. This game will be one for the ages.

In the end, no one can take away what our Drexel Dragons have accomplished in 2014. We are CAA Champions and the school’s first group to make it to national TV in the playoffs. They have shown Fire, grit, determination, leadership, tenacity, and clutch performances time and time again.

We started counting at 8 games to a NCAA Championship, and now that number is cut in half. Four wins and our team sits atop the lax world. Almost impossible to fathom just a couple months ago when we sat with a 4-4 record. Impossible for the outsiders, impossible to the skeptics and non-believers. Not impossible for those of us who always believed. We said we’d need senior leadership, stars to shine in the critical moments, with coaching and goaltending the tipping points. So far, so good.

Of course, it all starts with one game at a time. One epic contest on ESPNU whose national audience will see the Drexel Dragons for the first time this year, and for most, the first time ever. If we play our game, scoring 11+ goals, and hold our opponents to 10 or less, we will be going to the quarterfinals in Delaware.

Let’s show America what we are made of. Let’s keep playing. Let’s keep winning. Few expected us to be here in the first place, so we are playing on house money as a heavy underdog. Let’s shock the world and give lax fans a new team to route for.

Congratulations Dragonlaxers on what you have accomplished. That is set in stone. But we are not finished yet. Breathe Fire Dragons!!!

- Anonymous Dragonlax Fan

 

Calling all Drexel Alumni - the boys need your support at Franklin Field.  They feed off the energy of the crowd and why not take over Franklin Field.  Hell, it used to be our home field in the dog days of winter before Vidas had turf.  Meet at Landmark Americana at high noon on the outside patio.  For $25 we've arranged a spread of hoagies, chicken fingers, wings & hot dogs to go along with the delicious brews from our sponsor Yards Brewing Company, Coors Light & well drinks.  To quote my former high school coach, "If you're not in, you're out."  Well not really, but since the game will be on ESPNU expect there to be fewer tweets from @WPFLACROSSE although we'll try to get some pictures of the historic day out to our fans.  Go Dragons. 

 

From the Bleachers 

 

 

 

From the Bleachers: One Game

 

The 2014 iteration of the Drexel Dragons Men’s Lacrosse team is making a statement and perhaps will prove to be a team of destiny. Last Friday night in North Carolina this group of Dragonlaxers took on a hot High Point team, one that was leading it’s Atlantic Sun Conference (and in the meantime has earned a place in that league’s championship game), and took care of business. The 11-8 score was not indicative of the actual game as Drexel dominated from the get-go and let in two goals in the last 30 seconds. What mattered, however, was not the score, but the result. We won. We won on the road. We won a game we were supposed to win. Championship teams find a way to win out of conference games in someone else’s house.

            Yesterday, all the hard work that earned our team a 10-4 regular season record and home field advantage for the CAA semi final came to a head. We had to face our nemesis, the defending CAA Champion, a team that ruined our hopes and dreams last season in brutal abruptness. A team that we beat just a couple Saturdays ago, on their turf, in their spectacular stadium, on their senior night. A team who wanted to play in the swimming pool that was Vidas Field on Wednesday night because they knew the ridiculous conditions would slow down our offensive juggernaut and blind our goalie in the monsoon. I’m talking about the Towson Tigers, of course.

            After checking out of their hotel Towson was forced to sleep in New Jersey and fight flood (literally) traffic on Thursday to get to the game. They were mad. And their coach played on it, holding them in the locker room until just two minutes before the national anthem and face off. Their Head Coach, Shawn Nadelen, another Johns Hopkins alum and former teammate of our Head Coach Brian Voelker, used all the leverage he had. And in the time between our first game and this one he did what his title suggests, he coached. Towson took their time on offense, patiently waiting for the exact shot they wanted from the exact player they wanted taking shots. He said in the press this past week he wanted his team to have “better shot placement” and he put his players in a position to do so. Give Towson credit, because for over three quarters they had us right where they wanted us, up 9-6 with nine minutes to go in the game. With each possession taking up to three minutes, their formula was working.

            Right before the opening face off the CAA announced it’s league All Stars. Matt Dusek, our defensive ground ball machine, Ryan Belka, our consistent dodger and shooter, Nick Saputo, our dominant face off specialist, Nick Trizano our catalyst and goal scorer at X and Player of the Year “Big Ben” McIntosh, all were honored with First Team selections. They proved the selection committee of CAA coaches (who could not vote for their own players) correct.

            In particular, Saputo played one of the best games at the X in playoff history, going 19-22 during the contest. If you want to know what it means to “put on an All American performance” then you either saw it or need to see the tape. Ditto for our big guy, the senior from Western Canada, who proved POY honors mean something.

            Our WPF guys stand behind the goalie net, as you probably know from the cheering (and sometimes heckling), and when Big Ben took a lefty shot (he’s a natural righty) that bounced wildly over the cage when the score was 9-6, Towson Goalie Tyler White laughed out loud. It was clear and it was arrogant. Maybe that sparked the Fire. Or was it the Towson bench mocking us with our own cheer (electronic Ba-Ba-Ba-Bada-Ba-Ba-Bop) during the game when they scored?

            All this writer can tell you is that in sports you can push a beast into a corner only so long. And with minutes ticking off the clock, the season coming to an end, and the careers of McIntosh and his fellow seniors facing the same horror former stars Church and Prosser faced exactly a year ago, something had to give. Give up or expose the fangs and claws of a champion.

            The clock struck midnight for Towson as Big Ben took control. With 9:17 to play McIntosh jammed one in to make it 9-7, unassisted. With 3:35 to go, McIntosh again unassisted, 9-8. 2:47 to go freshman sensation Cole Shafer catches the ball in traffic via Belka, weaves through a titanium buzzsaw, and rocks the net to tie the game, his fourth goal of the contest.

            McIntosh isn’t finished, and with 2:14 to go he blasts his fourth of day punching the twine to give Drexel a 10-9 lead.

            But the defending champs were not giving up. They finally win a face off and with just 1:20 left find a streaking attackman coming backdoor who puts the ball in the upper corner to force OT. BTW, we are thanking the pipe for that as a shot with 1 second to go rattled off the crossbar.

            In twenty or thirty years, or a hundred for that matter, the facts will be the facts and the results their proof. Overtime: First Teamer Saputo wins the face off, with the help of senior Defenseman Tyler Houchins who nabs the ground ball yet keeps his toes behind the line of the restraining box like an NFL wide receiver, and delivers it to our offense.

            Coach Voelker wisely calls a time out and Coach Chris Ford, our Offensive Coordinator, probably the most unheralded assistant coach in the sport today, calls a play Towson has never seen because we have never used it before. A double pick with First Team CAA middie Belka sweeping right-to-left (although he is a natural righty) to dodge or dish back to McIntosh who was setting the second pick.

            But McIntosh is plowed over by the Towson defender and Belka has no one to throw to so he takes control of the game, and our season, our seniors, our fans, and the city of Philadelphia for crying out loud, to roar down the left seam, somehow on the full sprint switching hands to get to his strong righty and whips the ball to the opposite low post—a near impossible shot in general—and under the circumstances a play that will stand in Drexel lore for ages.

            When the dust, and players equipment, settles, and the parents come out of their fetal positions in the stands, it is clear we live another day and that day will be in Hempstead, on Long Island, on Saturday night at 7pm. A Championship on the line.

            In 2008 Hofstra beat Drexel in overtime to win the CAA and in 2012 UMass crushed Drexel 18-12 in the CAA Final. “Third time is the charm” many say in quaint cliché fashion. But there is nothing quaint about this Dragonlax squad. They are breathing Fire as a Dragon should.

            Is this the year? We have the players, including CAA All Rookie Teamers Markel Nelson and Cole Shafer, and All Academic CAA Will Gabrielsen in the net. Tomorrow night we will find out.

            At stake is our first ever CAA Title and Automatic Qualifier to the Big Dance in the NCAA Championships. Good luck Dragonlaxers. Destiny is yours if you scratch and claw for it as you have all season. Breath Fire and torch the Dutchmen!

 

 

 

Anonymous Dragonlax Fan

From the Bleachers 

 

 

 

From The Bleachers: Road to a Championship

            At the beginning of every year we look at our favorite team’s schedule and imagine how the season will play out. Based on past history, players graduating, injuries, and expectations, we dream of a winning season. We dream of championships.

            For three decades it has been just a dream for all but a small few. From 1978 to 2008 only Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, Princeton, and North Carolina won an NCAA Championship. That’s thirty years of just four teams starting the season with a realistic chance of going all the way.

            All that has changed in this modern era. In the last five years three titles have been won by Duke and Loyola (combined). New names and new first-time champions give hope to every team.

            Because this generation of players started earlier in youth leagues, were coached by men who actually played versus well meaning football coaches who found an affinity for our sport, the depth of talent nationally has boomed. There has never been so much talent, so deep, on so many teams. Division 1 Men’s Lacrosse now has 67 teams (up a dozen in the last decade) and as seen on a weekly basis, just about anybody can beat anybody. Example: Wagner, the #67 ranked team today beat VMI who beat Air Force who beat Fairfield who beat Yale who beat Princeton who beat Hofstra who beat Cornell who beat Virginia who beat #1 Loyola. Seven degrees of separation Kevin Bacon would understand.

            Teams on the rise like Drexel and High Point shine a light on the future of our sport. Drexel plays a far more difficult schedule, in a brutal conference, yet the way High Point played UNC this past weekend shows the gap narrows every game.

            Drexel won an enormous game on Saturday night in Maryland against the defending CAA Champions. The atmosphere was electric. Johnny Unitas Stadium was packed with locals and lax kids in droves. There was even a Jumbotron instant-replay screen and a shot clock (for next year when they change the rules to 60 seconds). Dragon parents, sisters and brothers, grandparents, and friends eager to see their team continue a quest for a conference title cheered their guts out.

            From the bleachers we witnessed boys become men this season, never more so than on Saturday night. Freshmen who are playing in their first game are still freshmen, but the name freshman next to a player’s name who is playing in their thirteenth D1 game is a seasoned veteran, especially if said player has scored so many goals and passed out so many assists he has drawn the attention of every coach who has seen film of Drexel.  Despite the attention, our crafty Attackman from Canada named Cole Shafer dodged and wove his way to the goal to rip uppers and pluck corners 5 times against the Towson Tigers.

            Sophomore Hank Brown got his first goal of the season and it couldn’t have come at a better time as we ramp up for High Point and a CAA Semifinal within the next week. Just like sophomores Miles Thomas and Jules Raucci, who are playing their best ball of 2014, we need the underclassmen to shine at crunch time. “Big Ben” McIntosh is finally getting the kudos he deserves, and the attention of every defense. When he passes the ball to our—what has become—arsenal of talent, it only makes the Dragons more fearsome.

            Nick Saputo, a junior, lays it all on the line every face off. He is currently ranks #6 nationally in both face off percentage (64%) and ground balls (124). His determination is contagious. And how could the team not be inspired by the play of sophomore Goalie Will Gabrielsen on Saturday night? Will not only made 11 official saves and picked up 2 key ground balls, drew a penalty, and stuffed several point blank shots, he also got his face mask broken by a rocket shot, staggered for “a standing 8 count”, gathered his senses on the sideline, and returned to make a save with 2 seconds to go in the third quarter and another 3 saves in the clutch fourth quarter as Towson attempted to muster a comeback.

            That maturity by Shafer, determination by Saputo, and toughness by Gabrielsen needs to transcend to the field in North Carolina this Friday night against a very good High Point squad. In only their second season as a Division 1 program, High Point sit atop the Atlantic Sun Conference eager to earn a AQ trip to the Big Dance. Their last game they played UNC even for three quarters and fell 12-8, more than a respectable score. They have seen very solid play at face off, attack, and the goalie positions all season. High Point is tough to beat at home (5-2) and overall (8-5).

            Every possession will be valuable for our Dragons to win. Each ground ball, save, face off, or time out that puts the ball back in the hands of Nick Trizano (another hat trick against Towson) and Jared Boudreau’s (1 goal, 1 assist Saturday night) will matter.  On Saturday Mason Pynn, our bull at Short Stick Middie (SSM), gathered a ground ball late in the third quarter with the score 9-5. He was clearly getting pushed out of bounds but the referee did not have his hand on his pocket to pull a flag. Coach Voelker saw this and quickly called a timeout before Pynn went flying out of bounds. Instead of Towson having a chance to make it a 9-6 game, we held onto the ball and converted the timeout into money to stretch the lead to 10-5 and take the wind out of the home team, and their crowd’s, sails.     

            If Loyola, Duke, Penn, and Denver win Patriot, ACC, Ivy League, and Big East titles, respectively, those four will not need At Large bids. The eight At Large guarantees look like Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Syracuse, UVa, Cornell, Yale, UNC, and who? Hofstra or Drexel. But that’s only if all the above teams win their conferences (no exceptions) and if Yale beats Harvard and if Harvard loses their first round Ivy Tournament game and if Army beats Notre Dame (if ND doesn’t get to .500), and if Fairfield loses to Ohio State. All that, and if we beat High Point the door to an At Large bid cracks open for Drexel. Are you kidding me? Way too many Ifs!

            The simple and straight road: beat High Point, win Semi and Final of CAA Playoffs.

            Three wins from a CAA Championship. Seven from an NCAA Championship. Again, it all starts with 1 game, packed with The Fire, grit, toughness, and relentless sheer will of not being denied.

            No math. No ifs. Just results. And with it a dream come true; a Championship for Drexel.

- Anonymous Dragonlax Fan