Sixth-seeded Flames hurdle No. 11 Lopes in MCLA DI National Tournament opener, 11-8
Sophomore middie Keaton Mohs filled in for injured attack Cooper Branham and netted four goals to help Liberty University’s No. 6-seeded men’s lacrosse team clear No. 11 Grand Canyon University in the first round of the MCLA Division I National Championships, winning by an 11-8 final Monday afternoon in extremly hot temperatures at the Round Rock Multipurpose Complex near Austin, Texas.
With the victory, the Flames advance to Tuesday’s 6:45 p.m. (EST) quarterfinal against No. 3 South Carolina, an 18-10 winner over No. 14 Arizona. That will be a rematch of Liberty’s national quarterfinal loss in 2019, when the Gamecocks went on to win the last official national tournament before COVID-19.
“Keaton had a huge game for us,” Flames Head Coach Kyle McQuillan said. “We moved him around from midfield to attack after Cooper Branham suffered what could be a season-ending injury in the second quarter. We’ve got to figure out a solution for replacing him for the rest of the tournament.”
Graduate goalie Ryan Reynolds made eight saves, and Liberty’s defense killed off Grand Canyon’s first three man-up opportunities before giving up goals on its last two in the fourth.
“We were fortunate today to get a victory and control much of that game,” McQuillan said. “It was good to get back in the win column and definitely a good boost of confidence for the guys.”
The Flames (11-4), making their fourth national tournament appearance since moving up to the Division I level in 2014, were coming off losses in their previous three games — against the Nos. 1- and 2-ranked teams in the MCLA, BYU and Virginia Tech, respectively, and their ALC Tournament semifinal against Clemson.
Liberty opened an early 3-0 lead and went up 4-1 by the end of the first quarter before playing the Lopes (7-7) even for the final three. The teams tied the second quarter, 1-1, before the Flames won the third, 4-2, and lost the fourth by the same count.
“It was a good first game in the tournament, and we know we’ve got three more to go,” said McQuillan, hinting at Liberty’s chances to contend for its first national title on Saturday. “We didn’t get a ton of offensive production, but more than enough to win. Coming out and scoring first and kind of setting and controlling the pace of the game was key, and we had some really good quality possessions in the second half.”
Senior middie Thomas Pinel netted two goals as he joined Mohs in filling in for Branham (1G, 1A) on attack in the second half. Freshman middie Will Geary, the ALC Rookie of the Year, also scored twice. Senior middie Ryan O’Connor distributed two assists, and senior attackmen Cameron Carter and Mark Rolewicz tallied single scores.
The Flames were successful on 19 out of 22 clearing attempts, and their 10-man ride forced nine turnovers by the Lopes in the second half. Pinel and junior long-stick middie Luke Rafferty both led Liberty with five ground-ball pickups.
Tuesday’s showdown with South Carolina will be a rematch of the Flames’ 9-8 season-opening win. The Gamecocks are the only team this season to defeat No. 1 Virginia Tech.
“They are the reigning national champions (from 2019), and a team we were fortunate to get a victory against at the beginning of the season,” McQuillan said “They are a very different team now, as are we. It is great to get a chance to play against somebody we’ve got some history with. They have a number of super talented guys, and a program that four or five years ago came out of nowhere. Nobody knew back then if they were just a flash in the pan, and they have come on late in the season and proven that they are for real.”
McQuillan said that is the case for all eight of the teams remaining in the tournament, as the top eight seeds all dodged first-round upsets. Tuesday’s other quarterfinal matchups pit the Hokies against No. 8 Georgia Tech and No. 2 BYU against No. 7 Southern California at 4 p.m. and No. 5 Clemson against No. 4 Minnesota at 6:45 p.m.
“There isn’t just one or two teams in this tournament capable of winning a national championship,” McQuillan said. “This is one of the deepest fields ever, and there is a lot of parity, and any team left in this tournament has a legitimate chance of winning it all.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer