Defending champion Flames tripped up by Tigers in ALC Tournament semifinals, 12-11
A back-and-forth battle between Liberty University’s men’s lacrosse team and Clemson in Saturday afternoon’s Atlantic Lacrosse Conference (ALC) Championship semifinal at Lynchburg City Stadium turned out to be an emotional rollercoaster for the inaugural tournament champion Flames (10-4, ranked No. 5 in MCLA Division I), who lost their third game in a row and third one-goal decision of the season.
“Not being able to defend our ALC conference championship is a tough pill to swallow,” Liberty Head Coach Kyle McQuillan said. “I am really proud of the conference and what we’ve been able to put together here and proud of being able to bring it to Lynchburg. But this obviously was not the outcome that we really wanted.”
The contest was a repeat of the teams’ March 11 meeting at the Liberty Lacrosse Fields, when the Flames rallied from four-goal deficits at the end of the first and second quarters only to fall, 14-13, in overtime. This time, the No. 7 Tigers (13-3) trailed by four goals twice in the first half before stealing the momentum in the third quarter and ultimately overtaking the lead in the fourth for a 12-11 triumph.
“Anytime we play Clemson, especially this year, it’s always going to be a good game,” McQuillan said. “We knew that coming into it, but these close losses are really starting to wear on us, and we need to find a way to win some of these close ones. It hurts because it’s tournament play, and we know we’ve still got nationals ahead of us, but it was a really, really tough loss today.”
Tigers middie Coston Pendleton started the scoring with the first of his game-high five goals before Flames graduate attack Carter Elliott (4 goals) received sophomore midfielder Keaton Mohs’ pass from behind the cage and bounced in a leaping shot from a sharp angle on the left side, evening the score at the 10:23 mark.
Graduate goalie Ryan Reynolds (14 saves) made a great stab off a driving shot by middie William Ciccarelli and a spectacular stop of a point-blank shot by Clemson attack Garrett Brennan to preserve the tie before senior middie Cameron Carter sent a pass across the cage to sophomore middie Ryan Merbach for an easy finish and a 2-1 lead with 7:01 left in the quarter.
Clemson middie Jacob Magelssen’s low-to-high shot from the top of the box zipped past Reynolds, tying the score at 2-2 with 6:14 remaining in the first quarter. Then, a solid defensive pickup by senior defenseman Reagan Pritchett and phenomenal backhanded outlet pass in traffic to freshman middie Ezra Anderson sparked a Liberty fast break, finished by Elliott’s low shot from the perimeter, putting the Flames back on top, 3-2, with 5:15 to go.
Senior attack Cooper Branham started the second-quarter scoring less than 30 seconds in by bouncing a shot from the right side past Clemson goalie Calvin Annulis (11 saves) to double the Flames’ lead before freshman middie Will Geary, the ALC Rookie of the Year, unleashed a bounce shot from the top left side of the box that stretched it to 5-2 at the 13:43 mark.
Merbach’s running bounce shot from the right side hit the left pipe before Elliott emerged from behind the cage and fired a running turnaround shot just under the crossbar to make it 6-2 with 12:00 to play in the half.
After back-and-forth action and a couple of clutch saves by Reynolds, Pendleton struck again for the Tigers with a running bounce shot down the left side that careened off the right pipe and crossbar before finding its way into the net, trimming the deficit to 6-3 with 6:30 left.
Mohs made a great spin move and worked his way through three defenders in the left side of the box before putting away an overhand bounce shot, giving Liberty its second four-goal lead 5:02 before halftime.
The Tigers started to claw back on middie Sean Tariche’s behind-the-back putback from point-blank range in the right crease 3.3 seconds before halftime, keeping them within striking range at 7-4.
Clemson attack Brad Scheffler cut the deficit to 7-5 just 45 seconds into the second half on a shot from the center of the box into the upper netting before Magelssen hit a post before making it a one-goal game five minutes later, ripping a shot that was deflected into the top netting.
Branham responded less than a minute later when he received a feed from Mohs at the top of the box and finished a powerful drive across the box with a fantastic sidearmed shot into the upper netting.
Pendleton’s turnaround shot from the right side sliced Liberty’s lead to 8-7 at the 5:43 mark before he received an entry pass from Ciccarelli as he cut down the right side of the box and knotted the score at 8-8. Then, with 2:48 remaining the third quarter, Pendleton completed his natural hat trick and lifted the Tigers to their first lead since he started the scoring, capping a tic-tac-toe passing sequence with a running shot from the right side.
“We had control, went into the half with a lead, and gave it up,” McQuillan said. “There were some things that were a little bit out of our control, but still … we had a lead, we had momentum, and we gave it back.”
Both teams played down a man to start the fourth quarter, when Clemson came away with the opening faceoff and capitalized on a shot by Tariche. Flames senior middie Thomas Pinel picked up a ground ball turnover with the Tigers on transition before Branham grabbed a rebound of his own blocked shot and stuck it in the back of the net, drawing the Flames back within 10-9.
Liberty tied it at 10 on beautiful setup from Elliott behind the net to Mohs, who dished it across to a cutting Geary for an easy finish with 8:57 remaining in regulation. However, a low shot by Ciccarelli from the left side slipped past Reynolds and put the Tigers back into the lead with 4:57 to play before Tariche pushed it to 12-10 with a running shot from the right side with 3:46 left.
Clemson’s Kristopher Casey won the ensuing faceoff from Flames senior middie Cole Jankowsky and the Tigers started draining the clock. Liberty eventually forced a steal and Pritchett cleared the ball before Elliott’s high-precision shot drew the Flames back within 12-11 with 1:03 to go. But Alec Frank, the Tigers’ ALC Faceoff Specialist of the Year, won his seventh out of 10 tries and Clemson ran out the final minute.
“When you’ve got a lead, you milk the clock, and they did that, and we just couldn’t score fast enough,” McQuillan said. “Faceoffs definitely hurt. We knew we were going to have our hands full, but we would like to be a little closer to 50-50, if possible, and we did not get enough possessions off the face, for sure.”
That was the only statistical category that Clemson dominated, winning 20 out of 26 faceoffs, while both teams picked up 27 ground balls. Liberty successfully cleared 18 out of 19 chances (compared to 18-of-21 for the Tigers) and Clemson outshot the Flames, 44-41.
“A lot of really good things about today’s game, but unfortunately a lot of them are going to get forgotten, because you kind of only remember who won and who lost,” McQuillan said. “Hopefully, we can kind of pull some positives out of this, but the big thing is that it was just really a disappointment.”
Liberty’s Mohs joined Geary on the All-ALC First Team, and Reynolds complemented Carter and Elliott on the Second Team with Branham and Pinel on the third.
The Tigers will challenge No. 1 Virginia Tech, an 11-4 winner over Pittsburgh in Saturday’s second semifinal, in Sunday’s 3 p.m. ALC title match, set for 3 p.m. back at City Stadium. The Flames have a week to prepare for the May 9-14 MCLA Division I National Championships in Round Rock, Texas.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer