Men’s lacrosse suffers double overtime defeat in ALC Championship game

The Liberty Flames’ men’s lacrosse team ended its season with a 12-2 record, but fell short of the conference crown. After a dominant victory over the Tennessee Volunteers in the first round of the ALC Championship, the Flames were defeated in double overtime by Virginia Tech 14-13 in the ALC Championship game. 

“To Tennessee’s credit, they were hitting everything that they were shooting,” Flames Head Coach Kyle McQuillan said after game one. “They were on fire. They were moving the ball well, everything was rolled. And honestly, in the first half, it just didn’t feel like it was kind of going our way, and we weren’t getting a lot of the bounces. It didn’t feel like Liberty lacrosse. Fortunately, there’s two halves every game, and we were able to have a second half that was a little bit more indicative of what Liberty lacrosse is like.”

The Flames lead the Volunteers by just one at halftime, but the Flames all season have been a second-half team. Led by their superstar senior attackman Cooper Branham, Liberty roared to a dominant lead. 

Branham ended the first game with four goals, and he wasn’t the only Branham to do so. Luke Branham, the freshman attackman and the younger brother of Cooper, also ended the matchup with Tennessee with four goals.

The Flames, after being down one goal early in the third, defeated the Volunteers 20-11, advancing to face Virginia Tech in the championship game. The Branham brothers were responsible for eight of the Flames’ 20 goals, with three more coming off the hat trick of sophomore midfielder Will Geary. 

“I think it was everybody just kind of flipp(ing) the switch,” Luke Branham said. “But I think our goalie (junior) Eric Warnstrom just made a huge difference. He was stopping everything, giving Tennessee no momentum. That makes our job really easy on offense (knowing) that they’re having trouble scoring on the other end. It gives us lots of security.”

The matchup with the Virginia Tech Hokies came under a sheet of dark grey clouds that left a foreboding sense lingering on the field. There was no lightning, but this matchup didn’t require any more electricity. In the first half, it was a back-and-forth affair, and neither team seemed able to pull away. 

Warnstrom played one of the best games of his career in the crease, singlehandedly holding back a barrage of shots from the Hokies. He ended the game with 24 saves officially, while allowing just 14 goals. At the half, the Flames were down just one to the Hokies, and a low-scoring third quarter saw them take the lead 11-10 heading into the fourth. Braden Landry, a junior attackman who returned from injury against Tennessee, played a key role in helping the Flames pull ahead. 

The Flames managed to hold onto their lead until the bitter end, and with one minute left in the game they led by one goal and began a game of keep-away as they tried to run down the clock. After a timeout by Liberty, the Hokies swarmed the Flames’ ballcarrier, forced a turnover and gained possession, and with less than 20 seconds left on the clock the Hokies tied the game at 13. 

With the game tied, neither team scored in the waning seconds of the fourth, and the ALC Championship game was sent to overtime. After a brief four-minute overtime period, neither team was able to get past the others’ goaltender, and the game went into double overtime. In double overtime the Hokies were able to slip a shot past Warnstrom and their celebration ensued. 

“We played them very early on in the year,” McQuillan said. “So, we knew that when we played them the second time around, things were going to be very different. We did everything we needed to take that game and just fell a little bit short.”

Warnstrom, who tallied 24 saves against Virginia Tech, five of which came in overtime, was named the Defensive MVP of the tournament. 

“(Warnstrom) just continues to again and again just be our centerpiece,” Cooper Branham said. “He’s our rock. He’s our foundation. Without him, we wouldn’t be anywhere. So, it’s just amazing having him on the team. He filled some really big shoes this year and he did it tremendously. So, it’s been a blessing to play with him and (I am) expecting big things out of him for the rest of the year.”

Warnstrom wasn’t the only Flame to leave with some individual hardware. Luke Branham won the award for ALC Rookie of the Year, and his performance this tournament reaffirmed that decision. 

“I couldn’t be more proud as an older brother,” Cooper Branham said. “You just want your younger brother to succeed. It feels like I’ve spent my whole life training him, so to see him perform at the level he is, I’m just super proud of him. And it’s awesome having someone out there that I can really count on and has my back.” 

Palsgrove is the asst. sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on Twitter

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