30 in 30: A Win that Lost a National Title?
|After a dominating performance
against Dowling in the regular season finale, Limestone could not
replicate the outcome in Foxborough. Did that first victory
give the Saints a false sense of security? "I don't think we went
to Boston and lost to Dowling because we were overconfident,"
countered Limestone head coach J.B. Clarke.
© Kevin P. Tucker
They boarded the flight home to Gaffney, S.C., as conquering heroes. The Limestone players, considered of late to be the weakest link in the four-team NCAA Division II tournament because of the softness of their region, had just defeated Dowling on the Golden Lions' home field.
The Saints didn't just beat Dowling. They turned Strong Island into Wrong Island, smashing the then-third-ranked Lions, 15-7, potentially sending them straight out of tournament consideration.
"I remember late in the game, I looked at one of my assistants and said, 'Is this really happening?' It was bizarre," Limestone head coach J.B. Clarke said of the wipeout.
The eight-point differential certainly raised an eyebrow, but not necessarily the result. While Clarke was in his second year at the helm of a team that had flamed out in six consecutive appearances in the national semifinals, it was still a proud program. From 2000-05, the Saints played in every national championship game, winning two of them. Beating Dowling, as Limestone had done numerous times in the past, wasn't unexpected.
Traveling two weeks later and bouncing Le Moyne in the semis? Yeah, that was a bit of a surprise, especially considering the Dolphins' domination on faceoffs (16-of-22). A win is a win, however, and the Saints were heading to Foxborough.
Awaiting them there? A Dowling team still wearing the faint marks of the Saints' heel print on its neck.
"After playing them and us beating them like we did, I thought we were probably going to play Mercyhurst if we beat Le Moyne," senior attackman Riley Loewen said.
"I was surprised to see them again, quite frankly," admitted Clarke. "But the one team you don't want to play is the team you just beat, and beat pretty soundly. That's in any sport, at any level."
Clarke knows of this first hand. Back in 2000, Clarke, then the head coach at Washington College, needed a win over Salisbury in the regular-season finale in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The Shoremen produced a convincing 15-10 road victory against the Gulls, but had to meet Salisbury just a week later in the tourney, which ended up in a 21-9 setback.
"I really fought it that week after we beat Salisbury," said Clarke. "Our guys really felt like they were on top of the world, and I had trouble getting their attention going into the playoff game. It hurts. I've been there and I've seen it happen."
As he prepared his Limestone players for the rematch with Dowling, Clarke made sure to let them know that the Saints would be playing a talented and motivated bunch competing for all the marbles. To emphasize the point, when he showed the players cut-ups of the first meeting with the Lions, Clarke left out the second quarter in which Limestone outscored Dowling, 8-1 – the period that essentially produced the final margin of victory.
"We just watched the other three quarters," Clarke said. "We showed them the stats and said, 'Look, this is reality. This is what this game really was. Whatever happened in that other quarter, these are the quarters we need to focus on.'"
Clarke was right. The national championship tilt was a one-goal game that mirrored the neck-and-neck nature of those three quarters in Oakdale. When the final whistle blew, Dowling had the narrow advantage, but for Clarke, the loss had nothing to do with the Saints lingering on that one dominant quarter against the Lions.
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"I was a little bit concerned about how we would react, but the team last year was absolutely a mature team," he said. "When we had issues, we just talked to them about it. We were very honest with them. Their maturity level allowed us to talk about those issues. I don't think we went to Boston and lost to Dowling because we were overconfident."
The real difference was Limestone's three top offensive guns – Loewen, Shayne Jackson and Jackson Decker – finished shooting a combined 4-for-19. That same group was 6-for-14 in the first meeting with Dowling. If they matched that output in Foxborough, the Walnut & Bronze is resting in Gaffney this summer.
"I couldn't find the net," Loewen said. "I was throwing the ball over the net and Shayne got robbed a couple of times on the doorstep. Things that had never happened before were happening. Their defense was pressuring me and Shayne a lot more, which we expected to happen, but they played well."
Regardless of how the loss happened, Limestone has moved on to a certain degree. They aren't dwelling on the lead-up to the championship or the in-game minutiae that allowed Dowling to walk away with the victory, but they are looking to replicate last season's formula in order to make a return visit.
It won't be easy considering the hit the roster took through graduation. Loewen returns, but Jackson and Decker have moved on. More importantly, the Saints graduated three starting close defenders and Steve Gartelman, a three-year starter in goal. Loewen believes that won't be all bad.
"That will benefit us," he said. "Not having the hype that we did last year, we'll float under the radar and that may help us out in getting back there."
The cupboard isn't as stocked as it was last year – although Limestone still looks like it'll qualify for the expanded Division II tourney – but the players have an understanding of what it takes to play on the biggest stage.
"It's hard to tell where we are lacrosse-wise, but sitting down and talking to the guys, they are very committed," Clarke said. "They want to get back there. They got a taste of what it's like to do that, and they are certainly hearing from me just how much work it takes to get back there. You have to take advantage of those opportunities when you get them because who knows if you ever will again."