May 21, 2012
Rousing Red Dragon revival
Topple Tufts to reach national title game
Who knew SUNY Cortland had this in them?
In their 20 previous victories during this unbeaten lacrosse season, the Red Dragons had not been called upon to display their mettle or comeback capabilities prior to this NCAA Division III semifinal test of survival.
Trailing by five goals early in the second half, a bit shaken after post-season nemesis Tufts University had reeled off eight unanswered goals, Cortland could have wilted on this wonderfully warm Sunday afternoon at the Stadium Complex.
Instead, the Red Dragons responded to adversity by pulling out a 12-10 victory while showing off some championship-caliber character against a Tufts team that had knocked them out of the last two NCAA tournaments by one-goal margins.
Instead, second-ranked Cortland (21-0) will be headed to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., to take on top-ranked Salisbury (22-0) in a showdown of undefeated teams for the national title this coming Sunday at 4 p.m.
Junior Tom Casey, seeing extra time with the second midfield unit after senior Eric Richards was sidelined with an injury, scored the go-ahead goal with 5:28 left to play off an assist by attackman Mike Tota. Senior midfielder Zack Mulvaney then pounced on a late Tufts miscue for the point-blank clinching goal 1:31 from the finish.
Mulvaney was the 10th different Red Dragon to score, Tota with two goals and two assists while freshman middie Matt Rakoczy netted a pair of goals to go along with an assist to lead the offense. That balancing act and 16 saves by goalie Mike Kaminski — helping to negate Tufts’ 44-36 shot advantage — were keys to this Red Dragon revival.
“It says a tremendous amount about their heart and the way they play the game and carry themselves,” said Cortland head coach Steve Beville of his players. “They stayed composed, even after a lot of turnovers. We threw the ball away a bunch on clears. The guys hung tight, stayed together and didn’t turn on each other. Things started to turn for us when we got more possession, and they tired out.”
Over the final 25 and a half minutes, Cortland out-scored the black-clad visitors from Massachusetts 8-1. That included coming up with the final six goals of the day.
“IT SHOWS OUR character, shows our determination and our willingness to stay positive and stay together and never give up,” said Tota, one of six experienced captains on this Cortland squad. “Obviously, the seniors on the team were picking everyone up. We’ve been down in games before in our careers, but the young guys haven’t really had that experience. We knew it wasn’t over, it was far from over, and we were going to play our best ball in the second half. And that’s what we did.”
One of those seniors is Mulvaney, the kid from Carthage who was part of a youthful Cortland club that reached the Division III finals back in 2009 — also at Gillette Stadium — and beat Gettysburg to claim the national crown.
“We’re a grind it out team,” said Mulvaney, using a phrase prominently displayed on Cortland team shirts. “We practice hard all year in the Dragon Dome (AKA Lusk Field House) over there, running our tails off, and it pays off now because we ground them down. Last year we ground them down at the end, but we couldn’t get all the way back. Grind and shine... grind together and shine together.”
Last year Cortland nearly overcame a 9-3 deficit before losing 10-9 to Tufts in the quarterfinals, that game played in the Boston suburb of Medford. In this rematch, Cortland jumped out to a 3-0 lead on goals by Tota, middie Mike Cantelli and Richards — and were still in control with a 4-1 lead when sophomore attack Cody Consul struck early in the second stanza.
Then in a span of two minutes and 37 seconds Tufts (18-3) erupted for five goals — starting with a shot from the wing by senior middie Geordie Shafer and ending with a nifty putaway by cutting senior Kevin McCormick — to take a 6-4 lead in a relative blink of an eye.
McCormick and Andrew Fiamengo added goals to hike the lead to 8-4, and Cortland missed out on several scoring chances before intermission arrived. The halftime mood, to use Beville’s word, was “somber” and grew worse when Shafer bounced home a shot some three minutes into the second half.
KAMINSKI ALLOWED JUST one more goal the rest of the way, Beau Riley scoring his 51st goal for Tufts on a fast break for a 10-6 advantage. The unruffled goalie then closed down the crease to provide Cortland the chance to get back in the game.
“Kaminski had 16 saves, and that was a big huge factor in the second half. We only gave up two goals in the second half,” noted Beville, as the 6-foot-4 junior came up big when it counted most. And the Cortland coach had no intentions of lifting Kaminski after Tufts’ scoring spree.
“No, no, no, they were walking in on him. They were setting multiple picks for their ball carriers to loosen them up and it gave us a hard time and they were getting in tight on us,” said Beville. “So in the second half we said, number one, if they set a pick you’re hedging out and you’re going to jam them every single time no matter what. And we need to slide a little bit quicker. Once we got that in, Mike was a wall.”
Down 10-6, the Cortland rally got started by a Rakoczy connection from the wing. And with 1:05 left in the third quarter, sophomore attackman Eric Ohman sprinting off the sidelines and headed right to the crease to score a key goal to make this a two-goal deficit heading into the final 15 minutes.
Sophomore midfielder Joe Slavik tied the game at 10-10 with 9:16 left, set up by an assist by Greg Wright after the senior attackman gobbled up a crucial ground ball. Not long after that Casey came up with what proved to be the game-winner, coming after defenseman C.J. Nye had created a Tufts turnover that led to a successful Cortland clear.
“He had to come out so I had to step up,” said Yorktown product Casey of the chance provided when Richards injured his ribs. “Tota found me wide open and I just had to put it somewhere on net and hopefully it goes in.”
It was just the fifth goal scored this season by Casey.
BACK IN THE LEAD with five and a half minutes to go, Cortland won the ensuing faceoff but tossed a pass out of bounds. After that turnover two Tufts shots were off target, the Red Dragons backing up the second miss to regain possession. Cortland then chewed off some valuable time, helped out by Beville using up both of his second half timeouts.
Tota eventually lost possession behind the Tufts cage with 1:40 left to go, but the Jumbos botched a clearing attempt and that proved fatal.
“When I saw (Tota) turn it over I almost turned to get back on defense, but then I saw them try to clear it to their goalie,” said Mulvaney. “I thought for sure the goalie’s stick went up, I thought he was going to get it, so I took a step to turn away. Then I saw all of a sudden it got past him. I just kind of scooped it up and I just dipped and dunked. It was a spur of the moment thing, what I’ve been doing the last 12 to 15 years of my life.”
Cortland still had some some work to do. There was a final Kaminski save with 48 seconds left and a Tufts turnover forced by stellar senior long-stick midfielder Jack Kennedy at 0:15 before a joyous celebration erupted at the final buzzer.
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