Our Drexel Dragons opened the 2015 at legendary Klockner Stadium in Charlottesville on the normally tranquil campus of the University of Virginia this past Saturday night. From warm-ups into the first half our men’s lacrosse team looked ready to go, breathing fire, as Dragons should.
For a game in mid February there was decent-sized crowd of over 1500. The section of Drexel fans, while only in the dozens, equaled the masses in enthusiasm and vocal support. UVa tried to fill the stadium as their basketball team played a 2:30pm game and anyone with a ticket could have entered the lax game free. At that time the weather was bright and sunny and 46 degrees.
By 5:30pm the weather had gone from nice to cool to chilly to crazy. A few flurries in pregame became large flakes before halftime. Fans were pressed to see the ball although the players seemed to be fine until right before halftime when it became literally a whiteout.
Mentioning weather for a lacrosse game 99% of the time is irrelevant except for typhoons that postpone games (see Towson CAA Semifinal last year), yet on this day it played a factor. Not an excuse, just a factor. The score might have been exactly the same, we’ll never know, but when those of us try to explain the squall that erupted in sideways, upside down, gusting, monster snowflakes, and blanketing the surface in frozen powder that caused a delay you wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it. Leaf blowers had to clear the lines so we knew where the field was.
Gusts of wind of over 40mph caused blinding clouds of snow to explode randomly in that bizarre second half. Both teams had to deal with it, and perhaps Virginia’s ability to put the ball on cage made the difference in what was a hard fought contest. The only thing for certain is that if the basketball game and lacrosse games were swapped we would have played in sunshine on a grass field, not a frozen tundra where spotting the yellow (yes yellow—not orange!) ball was an on-going joke. Let’s just agree it was weird.
Drexel opened 2015 with a fist to mouth of the Cavaliers as Jules Raucci busted his typical ankle-breaking deek and ripped a lefty upper to start the season’s scoring (his first of two). The junior will be instrumental in our team’s success this year and it was a great sign of things to come as we defend our CAA Championship. Co-Captain Ryan Belka, our returning All American and pro draft pick midfielder, then punched the twine. Big Mason Pynn drove hard not soon thereafter and put a perfect bouncer over the head of the UVa goalie and it was 3-0 Dragons. We had upset on our minds in earnest.
This was the 19th year Drexel has faced Virginia and except for a lone victory it has been all Cavaliers, albeit the last three seasons have been taught one-goal contests. UVa doesn’t have the winningest coach in the history of the sport (Dom Starsia) or multiple NCAA national champion trophies (5) by accident. Beating this team in 2007 when UVA was ranked #1 in the country was the biggest win in Drexel’s history—in any sport! (No other Drexel team has ever toppled a #1 ranked team in any other sport). To expect the home team to submit when down by just 3 goals in the first quarter of their home opener was nonsense.
Virginia outshot Drexel 16-11 in the first half but Dragon keeper Will Gabrielsen looked rock solid as he made 8 saves in that first, dry, half. Miles Thomas, Jake Kiernan, and Markell Nelson played well in their first game starting together as a unit. The D was a bright spot, especially against such a talented squad on the road. SSM Jordan Cunningham was impossible to get around, and UVa tried going at him over and over with no success.
Another bright spot was the Drexel O. The ball was whipped around and the shots were quality and with force. When freshman Michael Kay busted a move and then absolutely ripped an upper—the kind where the ball sticks and then drops straight down—we roared. This Cali kid is up for the challenge of elite D1 laxer—a fantastic sign for our team in ’15.
Co-Captain Nick Saputo, our other returning All American, reminded anyone who knows anything about this sport that he is the best of the best at the face off X. Saputo won on the grass, in the snow, while being hacked, in traffic, you name it. With Nick on our team we are always in the game. Winning 16 out of 27 doesn’t accurately tell the story because Nick won almost all the face offs, but UVa did a good job of triple teaming him just as he got the ball and checked it out of his stick before we could clear it.
And when the coaches and players look at the game film they will see this game was won by Virginia and lost by Drexel in a combination of clearing that caused unsettled fastbreaks and turnovers. Lost clears—Drexel only cleared 5 of 9 in the first half—morphed into doorstep dunks and unstoppable six yard whippies. This was not a result of snow in the first half, it was typical first-game-of-the-season rust that is easy to fix over time and with great coaching (and we certainly have that in West Philly with Coach Brian Voelker and D Coordinator Chris Collins).
Same is true of the 19 turnovers by Drexel, fourteen in the first three quarters to Virginia’s 3. That’s 11 more possessions for a deep and talented team at home; simply too much to overcome for our Dragons. And yet our guys fought tooth and nail to the final whistle.
It was 8-6 at halftime, yet the game seemed to slip away (pun intended) in the third quarter amid the ridiculous blizzard as Drexel missed nine shots on cage to start the second half and Virginia didn’t, cashing in on three in a row making it 11-6 before Chris Fredrick broke the drought with 3:52 left in the 3rd quarter. Cole Shafer and Robert Frazee each tallied in the game. Belka’s second of the night at 7:49 of the fourth quarter gave us a last glimmer of hope after longpole Jake Gennosa jammed one in and the score was cut to four. But that was all we could muster in the insane snowpocalypse. Give credit to the team from the south who outplayed our northern boys in Artic elements.
To beat a quality team on the road you need to play your A-game. Like the NBA, an away team should expect some questionable calls. Saputo was tackled on one face off and they called a penalty on him. Hank Brown was clotheslined on the sidelines in front of the ref at a critical juncture and no flag came. This writer thinks it was the poorest refereeing job in years, and yet the men in stripes did not turn the ball over 19 times nor clear the ball just 12 of 17. A good team needs to simply overcome bad calls. Playing as well as the home team will not get it done. You need to beat your opponent on the road. Its knockout or lose. This is an excellent lesson worth learning in the first game and not the last. Easily correctable, like the clears, fast breaks, and turnovers.
Yes, we lost. But there is no shame in losing to UVA 14-10 on the road in a snowstorm. No one expected us to win in the first place. The bottom line is our O looks formidable, our D and Goalie look solid, our face off guy is the best, and we have talent beyond the starting lineup.
It’s a long season and remember last year we won a championship after falling in the opener to this same team. In team sports it’s about making adjustments and getting better week-by-week so you finish stronger than you started. No need for examples beyond this year’s NFL Super Bowl contestants.
The Next Opponent
Tewaaraton winner and all-time NCAA season scoring record holder Lyle Thompson will be at Vidas Field on Saturday for our 2pm heavyweight bout. Albany is ranked in the Top 10 (10th in the Media Poll) and will bring it as they always do. We have beaten them in thrilling games the last couple of years. It’s The Great Danes first game of the season and our home opener, so let’s protect our house!
Anonymous Dragonlax Reporter