National crown fits Red Dragons
PHILADELPHIA — Those t-shirts some Salisbury University lacrosse fans were wearing are now mere collector items.
That’s because SUNY Cortland dramatics on a humid Sunday afternoon made that casual apparel — which simply displayed the numbers 4, 7 and 70 — rather obsolete. A bunch of underdog Red Dragons turned them into a prophecy unfulfilled.
These talented and confident Sea Gulls from Maryland were expected to win their fourth straight NCAA Division III title, their seventh national championship overall and their 70th consecutive game dating back to 2002. Those were the impressive figures the shirts represented.
Instead, an upstart Red Dragon team hardly in awe of their vaunted opponent or the special atmosphere surrounding this title game put an end to Salisbury’s winning ways. When junior attackman Mike Felice scored in the final moments of the opening four-minute sudden death overtime period, Cortland had pulled off a memorable 13-12 upset.
“We didn’t want to give them another shot, another chance to win the game,” said co-captain Felice after backing in towards the goal, splitting two Salisbury defenders and sprawling in front of the crease to tuck in the biggest goal scored in school history with 2.2 seconds showing on the clock.
“They weathered the storm,” said disappointed Sea Gulls coach Jim Berkman of the victorious Red Dragons. “They did a great job of finishing the game when opportunity knocked.”
Berkman, in his 18th season with this lacrosse powerhouse, would also add: “They were fortunate to get a break here and there that we didn’t get.”
Sure, the Red Dragons (18-3) had a little luck along the way while knocking off the defending champion Salisbury (20-1).
There was the fluke goal scored by junior midfielder Ryan Simensky with 56 seconds left in regulation that pulled Cortland even at 11-11. That bit of good fortune created the 10th tie of this closely contested battle and made a crowd of 23,990 at Lincoln Financial Field erupt in disbelieve.
There was also the overtime shot Salisbury’s Matt Dasinger clanked off the crossbar, senior defenseman Dan Schmitt winning the race to the corner when that ball finally landed and rolled out of bounds. That gave Cortland possession with 22 seconds left, setting the stage for Felice’s heroics.
Plus, Salisbury lost dangerous midfielder Mike Hurley to an injury four minutes into the game. A senior first team All-American with 42 goals and 20 assists on the season, Hurley did not return.
BUT CORTLAND DID plenty of things deserving of a champion, too.
There was senior goalie Ben Gaebel coming up with a career high 18 saves, as Salisbury fired off 47 shots. “You need a good goalie effort to beat a good team and they got a great goalie effort,” saluted Salisbury coach Jim Berkman.
There was the remarkable faceoff work of sophomore Josh Cittadino and senior Mike Abbott. Cortland won 20-of-29 faceoffs on the day, going 12-of-14 after halftime. “We haven’t had a game remotely close to that,” noted Coach Rich Barnes, the Red Dragons having won 56 percent of their faceoffs coming into the game.
The Red Dragon attack that came to life, too, led by sophomore Ryan Heath with four goals and an assist. Player of the Game Felice finished with three goals and two assists, while all-time Cortland goal scoring leader Kyle Lambert struck once and picked up two assists.
Middie Simensky, who scored the overtime goal that beat Wesleyan in overtime the previous weekend in the semifinals, had three goals and an assist in the title game — including that timely tying tally.
And though Hurley was lost for Salisbury, Cortland was also at less than full strength. Senior midfielder Mike O’Connell did play (and get an assist) despite a serious knee injury, but he was far from the form that made him the SUNY Athletic Conference Player of the Year. So just as with the loss of Hurley, Cortland was pretty much without one of its top guns, too.
“I JUST FELT, personnel-wise, we matched up with them,” said interim head coach Barnes, who announced during the week he would be stepping down from his part-time Cortland post. “I knew if we could stay close to them we’d be able to pull it out in the end.”
That’s just what Cortland did in its first title game appearance in 25 years, as the biggest lead by any team was a Salisbury 6-4 second quarter advantage. Cortland would get goals by Abbott and Heath to pull even at 6-6, though Salisbury’s Dan Boyer would get his 67th goal of the season with 1:13 left before intermission.
That transition goal was the only success Boyer would have on the day working against freshman Red Dragon long pole Luke Lemon. And going into halftime down just 7-6 was an emotional bonanza for the Red Dragons.
“It gave us a lot of confidence to know we could play with Salisbury and we could take it to them offensively,” said Felice, who had two goals and two assists at the break.
The third quarter was a wild shoot-out, starting with Simensky scoring from out top during an extra-man Red Dragon scoring chance to tie things at 7-7.
That’s when Cortland’s faceoff work came in handy.
Salisbury junior midfielder Luis Gonzalez scored the first of three straight Sea Gulls goals for an 8-7 lead at 9:08, only to have the Red Dragons score eight seconds later when Lambert set up Heath following a faceoff win.
Gonzalez rifled another goal from an unsettled situation for a 9-8 lead at 7:58, only to have the Red Dragons scored 10 seconds later when Heath set up Lambert following a faceoff win. Cortland would then go up 10-9 when Heath played a little cat-and-mouse from behind the goal before emerging to score at 4:33.
THE NEXT TWO goals would come from Gonazalez and Ryan Rohde to put the Sea Gulls back ahead, only to see Cortland pull even at 11-11 when Heath shook free in front and turned a Kyle Simensky pass into his fourth goal for the game with just 36.3 seconds remaining in that wild third stanza.
The final quarter was more nerve-racking and settled, with Gaebel coming up with clutch back-to-back saves in the early going before Eric Bishop put Salisbury ahead with 7:44 left to play. And the Sea Gulls were successfully killing off time before the Red Dragons got a crucial turnover, cleared the ball and called timeout with 1:31 left to play.
The ensuing possession led to Simensky being tripped up in front of the crease. He just flipped the ball in the air to keep it alive and it found a home behind Salisbury goalie Max Zarchin.
That sent the game into overtime, which Cortland almost won off the opening faceoff only to have Heath fire a shot over the top of the cage from close range.
Gaebel made one last save with 1:25 left, Gonzalez missed the cage with an open look and Dasinger smacked his shot off the crossbar before Cortland came back to win it, before Felice finished the job and triggered a huge celebration.
This was the first Division III title for the Red Dragons, this being their first title game appearance since 1981. Cortland did beat Hobart for a Division II national crown in 1975.
Overcoming Salisbury’s tradition and talent was special, too — the Red Dragons not daunted by the moment while setting a school record with their 18th victory.
“Not losing in, what is it, three, three and a half years, it’s hard to take,” said Salisbury senior Rohde speaking for his stunned squad.
“They made us pay for every mistake we made today,” summed up Coach Berkman.
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe
Remarkable ride to title for this Cortland bunch
PHILADELPHIA — Back in early March, the SUNY Cortland men’s lacrosse team had a pre-season scrimmage slated for Hamilton College.
As Coach Rich Barnes retells the story, the bus never arrived to pick up the team for the trip to Clinton. It would take some last minute scrambling to rummage up enough cars to get the players to the scrimmage on time.
“We’ve come a long ways,” said Barnes, comparing that transportation snafu to getting a police escort into Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia for the NCAA Division III championship game Sunday afternoon.
It’s been that sort of season for the Red Dragons, who lost the SUNY Athletic Conference regular season title before reeling off seven straight wins capped by Sunday’s 13-12 overtime victory over No. 1 ranked Salisbury in the title game.
“We rallied from a lot of adversity, like the coaching change,” said junior attackman Mike Felice, who scored the game-winning goal for the Red Dragons.
The coaching change came when 2005 Red Dragon assistant coach Barnes, somewhat reluctantly, took over the team when Lelan Rogers accepted a job with Syracuse University lacrosse program. Rogers went 76-17 during five seasons coaching at Cortland, the Red Dragons reaching the NCAA tournament each year.
“They had a lot of talent back, but he put his stamp on this team,” said Salisbury coach Jim Berkman of Barnes, saying the coaching fraternity knew he was more than capable with a resume that included assistant stints at both his Cortland alma mater and Ithaca College.
Barnes said he left it to the seniors to take control when practices weren’t up to snuff, when things weren’t running all that smoothly.
“Geneseo was the turning point,” said co-captain Felice, referring to a 9-8 home field loss that ended up costing the Red Dragons the conference regular season title and put post-season playoff hopes in peril with a third loss. “We all got together after that loss and talked about playing more together. We put a new offense in and starting playing more as a team, looking for our teammates more.”
Still, Barnes’ touch was always felt.
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe