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    October 24, 2022 Lynchburg, Va. RSS |

    Freshman attack Luke Branham scored six goals on just eight shots and added an assist while fifth-year senior attack Cooper Branham netted one goal and distributed six assists to lead Liberty University’s men’s lacrosse team to a 16-11 fall exhibition season-opening victory over James Madison University, Sunday afternoon in front of a Fall Family Weekend crowd at the Liberty Lacrosse Fields.

    “It was super exciting getting to play with my brother for the first time ever,” Cooper Branham said. “I’m a fifth-year this year, and we never got a chance to play in high school together. We had a lot success out there and I was super happy to be able to assist him a lot. He came from a pretty good high school and he started as a freshman, so I was expecting big things out of him. It was cool to see that chemistry work today and for him to finish off a lot of those goals.”

    Braden Landry, another freshman attack, and graduate midfielder Cameron Carter added two goals apiece for the Flames, while junior goalie Eric Warnstrom made 12 saves.

    “Braden Landry did a great job securing the ball,” Liberty Assistant Coach Mike Zumpano said. “He’s a little more elusive of a player in terms of his IQ and to kind of see the play beyond the play, and he did a great job of helping us settle in. This was (Warnstrom’s) first run with the starting group and he handled everything really, really well. He did a really good job for us of giving us a steady presence in-cage. He did a good job communicating, running the clear and the ride, and created some turnovers for us.”

    Liberty only led 4-3 after the first quarter and went into halftime tied at 5 before breaking the game open by outscoring the Dukes, 6-1, in the third quarter. Both teams added five goals in the fourth.

    “Every area, we progressed as the game went on,” Zumpano said. “We weren’t hot out of the gate like we would obviously like to be every time out. Some games, you have to just learn to grind through and be engaged in the game from the start and be ready to play the full 60 minutes. We were definitely ready early on, but it took us a little while to really press in and give a full concerted effort. We weren’t as aggressive as we knew we probably could be, so being more aggressive and not trying to force plays, but making the smart, natural play helped us to settle down, settle in, and be able to pull away.”

    “It was a good team W and a lot of fun today,” Cooper Branham added. “We started out a little slow at the beginning. We were making mistakes and letting them capitalize. But the second half went exactly how we wanted it to. We knew what we had to do, and (at halftime, the coaches) just said, ‘You’ve got to step up and get it done.’ (Head Coach Kyle McQuillan) pretty much said we needed to eliminate the mistakes and play our game, play how we know how to, so that’s kind of what we did.”

    Liberty started executing its set and fast-break offenses better in the second half.

    “A big emphasis for a game like this is trying to see how we work in transition from defense to offense and offense to defense, both the rides and the clears,” Zumpano said. “On the clears, we saw some new guys implement some new things that we were doing and we saw some success there.”

    He said the Flames will rely on its returning All-Americans, including junior midfielder Keaton Mohs, who was sidelined by injury against JMU, as well as sophomore middie Will Geary and junior defender Matt Walker, a first-teamer, this season. Liberty will also look to its captains, senior middie Remy Newton, Carter, Geary, and senior long-stick middie (LSM) Luke Rafferty, for leadership.

    Against the Dukes, the Flames experimented with some new players on defense, including graduate Ryan O’Connor.

    “Ryan was a bright spot on the defense who brought some stability,” Zumpano said. “He was a midfielder last year and we thought putting a longstick in his hands could give us a little bit of a boost. He’s earned his starting spot and proved why he should be there. We’re looking more production from (senior) John Plummer and we’ll get that, and (graduate) Ethan Bohannon moved to a long-stick defender to help to round out our depth there.”

    Freshman midfielder Max Myer drives past a JMU defender.

    Among the other freshmen who made immediate impacts were midfielders Bennett Newman, who “played a big role and had a nice goal at a key time,” according to Zumpano; Max Myer, who exceled in faceoffs and ground ball pickups; and Brody Ashworth, who is contending for a starting position.

    Zumpano said the Flames’ third line of middies, senior Jacob Gasterland and sophomores Ezra Anderson and Evan Shock, was as effective as the first and second lines.

    “All of those guys have really committed to both sides of the ball and really committed to their roles in the midfield,” Zumpano said. “The best teams have a lot of great production from not just their first line, but their second and third lines, and those guys have owned that. Jacob Gasterland had a phenomenal left-handed shot on a rollback to the middle. He’s a right-handed player, so you can see that these guys are spending extra time on the field outside of practice working on their craft, and it’s really rewarding to see those guys show out in a game, that that work is paying off.”

    He said the win over the Dukes was a good sign of things to come.

    “JMU had a really good season last season and make no mistake, they’re definitely a team that wants to compete with us for a No. 1 seed in our North Division for the ALC Tournament,” Zumpano said. “They have retooled, just like we have. It was good to pull away, but we’ve always got to be ready to play our best against any opponent.”

    Liberty will travel to Blacksburg, Va., on Saturday for a 1 p.m. showdown with ALC South Division opponent Virginia Tech, a team it normally ends its regular season against but will instead host on Feb. 18.

    “Virginia Tech’s been a giant in the conference since we started two years ago, so we’ll just be measuring our mettle against them as we finish the fall,” Zumpano said.

    The Hokies won the ALC Tournament before losing to Georgia Tech in the national quarterfinals, while Liberty lost to eventual MCLA DI National Champion South Carolina.

    By Ted Allen/Staff Writer

    Club Sports Assistant Athletic Director for Spiritual Development Reese Braband prays beside Head Coach Kyle McQuillan as the Flames’ and Dukes’ players gather around the faceoff circle.