From the Bleachers 

From the Bleachers

 

 

 

 

 

From the Bleachers: An Epic Year

 

            The roar of the crowd after Drexel’s first goal in the 2014 NCAA Quarterfinal game on Sunday will be a memory no Dragon player or fan will ever forget. And the second goal for our Dragonlaxers turned up the volume another decibel to near frenzied heights. We were on the big stage at the Big Dance and we came to play. The announcers on ESPN said exactly that, and for a moment there the Denver Pioneers wondered if their well-oiled machine of a lacrosse team was about to be dismantled by these emotional upstarts from West Philly.

            How appropriate for Big Ben McIntosh to be the one to erupt the sea of gold on that initial score. The senior from Coquitlam, British Columbia blossomed as a player and leader over his career in University City, carrying our hopes and dreams on his broad shoulders to a mountaintop never climbed in the 72-year history of Men’s Lacrosse at Drexel University. Big Ben would add another tally before the day ended, finishing a legendary career with 100 goals, breaking the All Time Drexel Single Season Goals record with 48 goals to go with his 17 assist to account for 65 points. McIntosh’s 48 goals led the entire Division 1 ranks among Midfielders.  

            It was Jules Raucci who ripped a shot past the Denver goalkeeper to make it 2-0 after a Will Gabrielsen save, and we all thought Cinderella pushed her foot in the tiny glass slipper.

            But Denver was vying for a Final Four spot for the third time in four years for a reason. Although clearly rattled, and according to their iconic Coach Bill Tierney who said we were “bigger and faster than they (Drexel) looked on film”, the Pioneers settled down and went to work like a serial killer in a movie. They stalked their prey, methodically preparing for the precise place and moment, and then they quietly sliced and diced their victim. It ended in a bloody conclusion. “It was the best quarter we played all season,” Tierney admitted after the game.

            We did get a Nick Trizano goal to take the lead with 5:35 left in the first quarter to make it 3-2, but Denver did to us what we did to Penn the prior week by controlling the dot and time of possession allowing for more opportunities to capitalize on mistakes. By the time we scored again with 6:12 to go it was the third quarter and the Pioneers had rattled off ten straight goals in the meantime. To win against a deep and talented squad as the underdog you must play an almost perfect game, and on this day we did not. But we learned what it would take to get to Championship Weekend. Our underclassmen and rising seniors now have experience playing in front of 7,222 fans and a national television audience. Learning first hand how to handle adversity like poor officiating, the value of cherishing the rock, and avoiding penalties will bode well in the years to come. Sports can be a brutal instructor, yet reality does not lie. How we grow from this particular game is the only question that remains. The fact is we were a single victory away from making it to the Final Four and three wins from being crowned National Champion. That is not debatable.

            Playoff wins and Championships in sports are what we all strive for. The thrill of tossing equipment and piling up in front of the cameras is a dream for all players. Drexel now knows that feeling after our first CAA Championship title. That can never be taken away.

            Our victory at Franklin Field in the NCAA Tournament First Round, the unofficial Philadelphia City Championship, will remain a glorious and lasting memory. 22 teams have played a combined 41 games in the history of the NCAA playoffs and never made it to the Quarterfinals. What we did on our first trip to the NCAAs was remarkable.

            Like the other unranked teams in the NCAA Quarterfinals of 2014, Drexel rode home disappointed alongside Albany, Bryant, and Johns Hopkins. Not bad company. Indeed, the teams that went down this past weekend all were winners who made their programs—new and storied—proud. The glass slipper would have to wait another year.

            For our Dragonlaxers this season was one of hope and accomplishment. The dawn of a new era in D1 lax is upon us, with new-fangled teams and fresh faces changing the landscape as never before. Drexel is a poster child for teams on the rise. Anyone can beat anyone on a given day never rang so true. “Intensity has to be kept for 60 minutes—and beyond—or you will not become a champion,” is the message. Our 7-3 record in games decided by 3 goals or less show we have turned the corner, and our 3 wins out of 4 performances in overtime games prove we have grasped the “and beyond” 60 minute part of that equation as well.

            Senior Captains Ben McIntosh and Jason Klunder left the program in better shape than it has ever been. We will sorely miss fellow seniors Tyler Houchins and Matt Dusek on the defensive end. They have set the bar when it comes to toughness and ball hawking ability. How many times did T$ shut down a top scorer? Duce managed to snatch so many key ground balls in titanium traffic he received First Team CAA honors.

            We thank Deven Thomas for his hard work on the face off dot and carrying the Drexel flag onto the field with The Fire of a dragon. It will be tough to replace our seniors at the Attack position, both of whom fought adversity to prove quitting isn’t an option, one who battled perception and the other injury. Jared Boudreau didn’t listen to the doubters who said an undersized kid from Vermont couldn’t make it in Division 1 on a Top 20 team. Instead, Vermont fought for an opportunity that didn’t come until his senior year, yet when he finally made in onto the field he became an instrumental part of a championship roster creating 32 points on 18 goals and 14 assists. His rip over Penn’s highly touted goalie in the NCAAs left an indelible mark on our team’s history. And Nick Trizano sacrificed his body on just about all of his 54 points this year, diving into traffic, backing into crosschecks, and bulling over much larger defensemen. Triz’s 40 goals all mattered, and seemed to spark our team when we needed them most. His First Team CAA selection was made the old fashion way, he earned it. Yes, we will miss those guys and thank them for their undying efforts.

            Indeed, you seven seniors will leave West Philly with CAA Championship rings on your fingers and the gratitude of all who followed you this year and for your entire careers. Thank you all.

            We also need to acknowledge the other guys on the sideline who made a huge difference in this squad going from contender to champion, our coaches. Head Coach Brian Voelker arrived in West Philly and was already a winner. Voelks was a three time All American as a player at Johns Hopkins, of course, and won two World Championships playing for Team USA, three indoor professional championships with our Philadelphia Wings, was an NCAA champion as an assistant at Princeton University, and won an outdoor pro championship as coach of the Baltimore Bayhawks. This guy knows how to get the job done and win. This season his timeouts to save critical possessions, his personnel adjustments, pregame preparation, and never-ending recruiting, all came full circle to reward him and all of us who follow Dragonlax. Coach rarely smiles and doesn’t say much, so when he was doused with icy water from the Gatorade bucket after his first NCAA victory as a coach we knew something special happened when he lit up.

            Under the radar was offensive genius Connor Ford who took our men to near 12 goals per game, making us a nightmare to play every week. We outscored Albany for crying out loud! And defensive coordinator Chris Collins brought the best out of our Keeper, helping Gabrielsen finish the season #5 in the country for total saves (186). Kevin Stockel was our Volunteer Assistant Coach whose positive attitude and willingness to do whatever was needed to win must be recognized. Thank you coaches.

            True, this website is alumni based and sponsored, but as a non-alum I can say it was a delight to see the spirit and passion of former players begin long before games and last long after they were finished. Every contest mattered and they wore each victory, and suffered the few defeats, as though they were still on the field themselves. That is what being a true alumni means—caring. Thank you alumni.

            As far as the administration at Drexel, this year’s team awoke a sleeping giant and before we could say “NCAA here we come!” we had cheerleaders, a mascot, free busses, tickets, a band, and the president of the university at our games. Winning is contagious and this will only bode well for Drexel in the future. Thank you for the support DU.

            Speaking of the future, imagine what that win against Penn on national television did for our recruiting from east to west on the Canadian border north and south. We are no longer a very good team no one knows about. The good news is the calls will start coming in and not only going out. Selling Drexel will be never be a tough as it used to be. The bad news is the CAA, and everyone on our schedule, knows we are a beast-of-a-program on the rise. Every team we play next year will come in thinking it is a “Game-of-the-Year” contest. A luxury problem we welcome.

            Yes, our future is very bright. We have midfielder Ryan Belka returning as a senior after a 25 goal, 21 assist, and First Team CAA campaign. Belks will be joined by linemate Jules Raucci, only a sophomore this past year who scored 16 goals and had 8 assists, with arguably the best first-step separation move in college lacrosse today. Mitch de Snoo, the hero of our triple OT victory against Penn State, returns as do fellow bull studs Mason Pynn, Hank Brown, and Matt Clark. On defense we get Paul Harrison back for a final year to run with Miles Thomas, Jake Kiernan, Markel Nelson, Jordan Klunder, and Jake Gennosa. We wonder whether Kiernan will shave Mohawks on all the D next season to make them as fearsome as he was this year. Thomas is as solid as rock and Nelson made the CAA All Rookie Team. We don’t know whether Frank Fusco, Chris Frederick, Joe Rainoldi, Pat Root, Nick Valentino, Cliff Simeon, Chris Panichelli, Jordan Cunningham, and TJ Foley will be role players or stars next year, but we have seen them play and know they all have potential to shine. The Redshirt and incoming freshman add an element of surprise, and if we didn’t learn in 2014 that they can be the difference between a championship or not then just remember playing under the lights at Hempstead as ask yourself who scored the winning goal to clinch our title.

            Belka is a legitimate All American candidate, and those mentioned above will be instrumental in supporting Belks as we move on to 2015. But don’t forget we still have other All American caliber players in Nick Saputo, Cole Shafer, and Will Gabrielsen returning. This is a core of budding superstars at both ends of the field, and in the middle, which make Drexel a team whose best days, believe it or not, are yet ahead.

            Before we move on, however, let’s relish in some of the 2014 highlights, of which there were many, like the aforementioned shot by Shafter to win it all at Hofstra. That whole game was a highlight reel (and you can see it on Lax.com anytime you want!). The come-from-behind fourth quarter, huge save by our goalie in double OT, and dog pile of gold jerseys gives me Goosebumps every time. Think about it: Drexel won the CAA Championship in triple overtime under the lights at Hofstra for our first birth in the NCAA tourney. Epic stuff.

            And how about the double pick play Belks turned into money against Towson in the semis? A play that wouldn’t have come about if the clock didn’t strike midnight thanks to Big Ben who willed his way to the goal to force extra time and a friendly crossbar reminding us that destiny played a role in that thriller. But there was nothing to compare to Saputo winning 19 out of 22 face-offs in that playoff contest.

            We won against what many are now calling the greatest attack unit who ever played the sport, Albany’s Thompson Trio. 16 saves and a bend-but-don’t-break defense plus a relentless offense by Drexel spelled victory in an away February game that set the tone for the entire year.

            Highlights like the bomb assist by Gabes to Shafer against St. Johns are etched in our minds. The total team effort against UMass when that was the biggest game of the season (at the point) must be noted. Same could be said of the regular season win at Towson at Johnny Unitas Stadium when our guys stepped up to exact revenge from last year’s playoff loss. And why not throw in the win at Delaware in a monsoon when we needed to win to clinch home field for the semifinals? Beating Penn State in triple OT goes without saying.

            Those highlights were plenty and yet only rabid Dragonlax fans witnessed them all. Not so when ESPN rolled in their trucks and several thousand more showed up live at Franklin Field for the NCAAs. The nuclear annihilation by Saputo in a matter of seconds to end the first half may someday become a verb, “That guy pulled a Saputo,” meaning he took a face off and went unstoppable Berserker to the cage in a matter of seconds.

            Actually, that whole Penn game can be considered a highlight, with Vermont nailing those rips, Jules leaving defensemen whiffing and jamming the ball into the cage, Triz diving into Quakers as he scored, Big Ben setting records, T$ crushing dudes, Belks in transition igniting the roaring crowd as he nails an upper, and Gabes standing on his head making one point blank stuff after another to the delight of his teammates and all who watched that day (and the TiVoed replays seen over and over by our fans).

            Sports are life through a clearer lens. When things are not going right in life it is sometimes hard to put your finger on why. Not so on a playing fields. Emotions are clear, actions are seen, and lessons are learned among the brotherhood of your teammates. Adversity being overcome by working together is what we hope to take into our daily lives. We keep score in life with money, titles, accomplishments, and materialism for the most part. It’s difficult to measure love. But on a team there is actually a numerical score to measure how you are doing. And the love of your team and the players among themselves is quantifiable beyond metrics.

            You know you have had a fantastic year when there are so many highlights you cannot remember them all. And yet also among the lasting photos in our mind’s eye will be the scene at the tailgates as they expanded weekly from parents and sisters (always represented at every game) and alumni to grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, former coaches, administration officials, and friends. Words cannot truly describe how we bonded on and off the field. We are family now as never before at Drexel. And as a family we will be there for each other on life’s journey no matter where it takes us and for how long. Winning does that to a team and a community like no other remedy.

            So while the officials may have made a mess of the quarterfinals, and our team did not go to the Final Four, we still have 2014 etched into our collective souls as one of a championship season on a whole new level, one that will never be forgotten. This season has set the bar for all Dragonlaxers from this day forward.

            Thank you and congratulations dear players, coaches, fans, and alumni for these priceless memories and meanings of life. Be proud, have a great summer, and be prepared for another epic adventure in 2015 and beyond.

- Anonymous Dragonlax Fan

 

Thanks to everyone who made this such a special year - the players, the parents, alumni, our sponsors, the athletic department, opposing team's fans, anyone and everyone who attended one of our tailgates - this season will go down in history.  We'll be rolling out the final list of all those who donated and let's just say the boys weren't the only ones who made history this year.  Don't settle.  Keep supporting this program and leave it better than you found it.  It'll be weird with no lacrosse this weekend but keep following us @WPFLACROSSE and if youse want to reach out with any suggestions for the future, please contact us - westphillysfinest@gmail.com

Until next year...