Tommy Time: Twice as Nice, Twice as Hard
|Utah Valley gave all the defending champions could
handle, but at the end it was the St. Thomas defense that proved to
be the difference in the Tommies' 12-9 win in the MCLA Division II
© Marc Piscotty
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – It’s tough to play your best
lacrosse when you have a bulls-eye around your neck.
It’s the nature of being the defending champion, and it made St. Thomas’ run to its second national title, which was capped on Saturday evening with a 12-9 victory over Utah Valley in the MCLA Championship game at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, a grueling affair.
“There was a lot more pressure on us this year,” admitted St. Thomas coach Pete Moosbrugger. “Last year, we thought we could do it, and we did it. You always want to repeat, but everyone knows who you are, and people always want to beat the reigning national champion. But today we played the best team lacrosse that we’ve played since I’ve been here.”
“They’re all hard,” said St. Thomas senior defenseman Derek Michalski. “Each team has its own different moving parts. We came together this year and we had our ups and our downs. Togetherness has been our mantra and it showed today when things got sloppy. Guys were picking each other up out there and it worked out for us.”
The Tommies needed to play at a high level because Utah Valley did not fold under the constant pressure that has resulted in a comfortable win in the past. While the Wolverines fell behind by as many four goals, they always stayed close enough to make the defending champs nervous.
“That’s what happens when you play in the national championship game,” said senior midfielder Tony Sadder. “Utah Valley is one of the best teams in the country and they weren’t going to back down. Chop wood and carry water; just grind it out the whole time. That’s what we did.”
Sadder was a key component in the victory, not only because he paced the St. Thomas offense with three goals and an assist, but he also was instrumental in breaking a Utah Valley ride that really gave the Tommies fits, especially when the champs tried to pull away.
“They did a great job of riding us and locking off players, and we didn’t have a really good answer for that,” said Moosbrugger. “We had a hard time getting the ball to our offense. We played great defense, but they had to play for most of the second half. We have a potent offense, but if we don’t get them the ball, we’re going to struggle.”
Relatively speaking, the Tommies did struggle, but they were in control of the game after rallying from an early 2-1 deficit. Meanwhile, Utah Valley spent the majority of the first half trying to not to be swept away by the St. Thomas offense that has always had the knack for scoring in bunches.
With the Tommies leading 4-2 late in the first half, thanks to two goals and an assist from senior Joe Costello over the first 10:32, the Wolverines were dangling very close to the danger zone. But Trever McCann bulled his way into the middle of the UST defense and bounced a shot past goalie Tom Thone to cut the lead back to one.
Late in the second quarter, with Utah Valley facing an even more daunting, 8-4 deficit after Jason King scored a pair of goals and Cooper Mazon added a third in the span of 2:44 for UST, the Wolverines salvaged a chance at rallying in the second half.
Chris Lanham began the late charge by skipping a low shot over Thone’s stick with 4:11 left before the half. Chad Frost cut the margin to two, 8-6, with 1:29 remaining by burying a cross-crease feed from Cam Petersen.
Utah Valley may have been able to get even closer, but the Wolverines were completely dominated at the face-off X. Andrew Larson was 9-for-11 in the first half alone, and finished 12-16.
Near misses would be the theme for the rest of the game.
The Tommies opened the second half with goals by Larson and Mazon to balloon the advantage back up to 10-6. After a six minute lull in the action, UVU cut the lead to three on a Michael Santamaria marker, and then missed a huge opportunity.
With two UST players in the penalty box, the Wolverine offense stalled, getting very few opportunities as the Tommie backline killed off the advantage at the end of the third period, allowing Sadder to open the final stanza with a rocket off a right-side roll to effectively end any chances for the Wolverines.
“They were really good at possessing the ball, and that’s usually what we do on offense,” said Mazon, also a senior. “We had to realize that and slow down a little bit because we’re a very fast-paced offense. We had to play smart.”
Utah Valley did manage to cut the lead to 11-9 with under five minutes remaining, but Sadder sealed the win with an empty net goal with 10.8 seconds left.
The Tommies are certainly led by a number of stars, including Costello, Michalski, Sadder and Mazon, but perhaps the most important player for St. Thomas this tournament, and especially in the championship game, was goalie Tom Thone. The junior finished with 10 saves, including several clutch stops when the Wolverines were closing in.
“He has been a stone wall for us back there,” said Moosbrugger of his netminder. “We have some great long poles and defensive middies, but it all stops with Tommy Thone.”
While being defending champions draws everyone’s best shot, it also gives a team a confidence that only comes with winning it all.
“We didn’t run our game-plan. It’s plain and simple,” said a disconsolate Kevin Perkins, the Utah Valley coach. “We’re a 50-shot a game team and we just didn’t execute. There were a lot of nerves for our team and they are the defending national champions, so they had been here before.”
The Tommies should take time to enjoy this one. When a team chases title No. 3, it only becomes exponentially more difficult.