Flames rally past rival Hokies, clinch Northwest Region title
April 20, 2019 | Blacksburg, Va.
No. 3-ranked Liberty University's MCLA Division I men's lacrosse team needed a second-half scoring surge and fourth-quarter defensive stand to fend off No. 11 SELC Northwest Region rival Virginia Tech, 9-8, Saturday night in Blacksburg, Va.
The Flames (14-0) finished the regular season undefeated for the first time in program history. Saturday's game was also the first time Liberty has defeated the Hokies on their home field. The showdown determined the region's top seed going into next weekend's SELC Division I tournament near Atlanta.
Liberty led 4-0 in the first quarter before allowing the Hokies (10-5) to score five unanswered goals in the second quarter to seize a 5-4 halftime lead.
"We knew this was going to be a competitive game," Flames Head Coach Kyle McQuillan said. "They definitely showed up ready to play, wanting to get an upset and ruin our undefeated season on their senior night. We needed to continue to battle."
Senior midfielder C.J. Nichols netted four goals, including three of Liberty's five second-half scores, and senior attack Sam Gregory and senior midfielder Chase Wright each scored twice to ignite the offense. Nichols tied the game at 5-5 with a dive shot into the crease before Gregory put the Flames back on top. The Hokies responded to tie it up before Nichols unleashed the go-ahead goal, giving Liberty a lead it would not relinquish.
"C.J. definitely lifted us out of the hole we were in," McQuillan said. "He turned the ship around for us and got us going in the right direction. Sam (Gregory's) goal reinvigorated the team and (sophomore attack) Thomas Pinel's goal put us up (8-6) and we never gave up the lead again after that point."
Senior goalie Brayden Harriman made seven saves, including a few huge stops early on to enable the Flames to build their 4-0 advantage. Freshman faceoff specialist Cole Jankowsky won 13 out of 20 attempts to help give Liberty an advantage in time of possession.
"He definitely gave us the opportunity to be competitive today, against a good faceoff team," McQuillan said. "In the second half, we played more consistent and showed improvement in our defensive rides and on the offensive side of the ball. But our offense is a high-powered attack so it definitely wasn't our best performance. I give a lot of credit to VT for slowing us down."
Defensively, senior Win McKeever was a standout for the Flames, forcing a few critical turnovers late in the game, and fellow senior defenders Ean White and Tyler Keen and junior Reagan Pritchett all played well as a unit.
"Down the stretch, Virginia Tech had possession, but our defense did really well to not give up good looks," McQuillan said. "We kept them at bay and held onto the lead."
Liberty has just five days to prepare for its first SELC Tournament championship at the Division I level. The Flames face Central Florida, a team they defeated 17-6 in their Feb. 16 season opener at the Liberty Lacrosse Fields, in Friday's first round.
"The SELC is pretty stacked, and I don't know if there is an easy path to the championship game," McQuillan said, noting that the Flames have only been there once, in their first season at the Division I level in 2014, when they lost to Virginia Tech, the reigning SELC Tournament champion. "Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech have gone back and forth, but we are trying to make this a season of firsts."
He hopes to have junior midfielder Carter Elliott available for the postseason after he has battled a series of injuries.
"We would love to be able to go into the SELC at full strength and add another weapon to our arsenal," McQuillan said.