Jumbos Run Off RIT with Late Surge
D.J. Hessler scored two of Tufts' four goals in the final four minutes, leading the Jumbos back to Baltimore -- and an NCAA championship game rematch with Salisbury -- after a 16-12 semifinal victory at RIT.
© Kevin P. Tucker
HENRIETTA, N.Y. -- The easy thing would be to say that Tufts' experience in big games was the deciding factor in its 16-12 national semifinal victory over RIT Sunday afternoon in the NCAA Division III men's lacrosse tournament.
And yes, the Jumbos are the defending Division III national champions and many of their players have played on lacrosse's biggest stage.
However, as senior attackman D.J. Hessler said in reference to RIT, "They've never been here before, and they knew what to do, so it's not like it makes all the difference in the world."
The Tigers, a team led by a tremendous group of seniors, certainly did know what needed to be done, and they gave Tufts all it could handle. But ultimately, the key to this back-and-forth game had nothing to do with experience; it came down to a very talented Tufts squad making a few more big plays over the final four minutes than a very talented RIT team.
"We made just about one or two more plays than they did all day, and thankfully, they happened at the right time," said 13th-year Tufts coach Mike Daly. "These kids are awesome, and it's humbling to be around it sometimes and watch them play. They did their job, and it makes my job awfully easy."
The Jumbos (18-2) will get to defend their national championship in Baltimore against Salisbury because they broke away from a 12-12 tie by scoring the final four goals, two coming off the stick of Hessler.
RIT, which had been in catch-up mode almost all day, had just tied the game at 12-12 on a laser by junior midfielder Jordan Collins-Hartwig with 4:52 to go in the fourth quarter. And just like they did all day, the Jumbos had an answer. They won the ensuing faceoff and eventually, senior middie Matt Witko buried a shot top shelf from the right side with 3:46 to play that proved to be the winning goal.
The Jumbos then continued to win the ball, and Hessler scored twice in a span of 59 seconds before junior middie Kevin McCormick scored his third of the game to put the exclamation point on the victory.
"Faceoffs were giving us fits today," said RIT coach Jake Coon, who tried seniors Doug Hemink, Jordan MacIntosh and MJ Kiekebelt at the "X" and saw them lose 22 of 32 overall to Tufts' superb Dylan Haas. "I knew their kid was really good, and it's a spot we've been struggling all year with. We were a little down in that spot, and they capitalized on that today."
Outside of the faceoff problems, RIT had far too many wasted offensive possessions. Although Tufts actually had more turnovers, it seemed like the Tigers' miscues often came at the most inopportune times, when they were trying to get the tying or go-ahead goal.
"I think today came down to the bad bounces and the breaks here or there, and they came up with a few more than we did," said RIT senior attackman Iric Bressler. "The mistakes, the feeds inside that got away, some of the bounces went to their players, and some of ours didn't seem to go to our players."
Tufts opened a quick 2-0 lead on goals by McCormick and junior attackman Sean Kirwan, but RIT responded with three in a row. When junior attackman Tyler Russell scored his third goal of the day early in the second quarter – which enabled him to set a new school single-season goal record with 66 – RIT had a 5-4 lead.
The Jumbos then beat RIT goalie Bob Tonnessen for three in a row in a quick burst of 2:01, and they wound up taking an 8-6 lead into intermission.
Russell scored twice more in the third quarter, as RIT pulled even at 10-10, and then the teams traded goals until Collins-Hartwig tied it for RIT at 12-12, setting the stage for Tufts' closing flurry.
News and Notes
Russell finished with 69 goals for the Tigers, setting a new school record for goals in a season. The old mark was 65 held by Greg Goulet in 1980 ... This was RIT's sixth final four appearance, and it has lost every game... Kirwan led Tufts with four goals... Haas not only won 22 of 32 faceoffs, he also scooped 15 ground balls.