Lacrosse is a game of momentum, and after Union College wrestled it away from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Saturday night’s showdown for the Liberty League championship, the Engineers grabbed it right back.
“From my side of the field, I could see the shots, and those four goals in a row, that gave us so much confidence,” Rensselaer goalie James Manchester, a graduate of Niskayuna High School, said after his team’s 12-7 victory at East Campus Stadium. “We knew were going to win after that. We just had to finish it.”
Rensselaer pulled away from a 5-4 third-quarter lead with those four unanswered goals, and went on to prevail in the 65th renewell against its local rival while completing a perfect trek through the Liberty League.
Bryant Johnson scored four goals, including the capper in the four-goal spurt and two more later on, and Manchester collected 13 saves, the freshman’s last five coming in the final quarter.
“We were coming off a 6-8 season, and we weren’t picked to finish real high in the league standings,” said Rensselaer coach Jim Townsend. “We had a lot to prove, the kids and the coaching staff. This is so good for our program.”
With its second straight win and sixth in seven games, Rensselaer, ranked No. 15 in Division III, completed its regular season at 6-0 in the league and 12-2 overall. Rensselaer and Union (4-2, 11-3), which saw its four-game winning streak snapped, will both host league tournament semifinal games Friday as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. The Engineers will host the championship game, if successful, on Sunday.
“We like our stadium. The guys are comfortable here,” Townsend said. “Hopefully, we get two more here.”
Johnson’s two fourth-quarter goals and another Devin Arnold gave Rensselaer a 12-6 advantage before Peter Griesinger notched his team-best third goal for Union with 2:58 left. Manchester denied three good opportunities after that to help seal the Engineers first win over Union since 2007, and its 40th victory against the Dutchmen going back to the start of the series in 1947.
“This was such a big game. It’s such a big rivalry. It was for the No. 1 seed,” said Manchester, who four times has earned Liberty League rookie of the week honors. “We knew we could do it.”
Manchester surrendered only one first-half goal while making six saves, and stopped seven more Union bids over the final 30 minutes.
“No one expected a freshman to play like this,” Johnson said of Manchester. “He’s been standing on his head all season. He’s been such a big player for us.”
“He’s been awesome,” Townsend said of Manchester, who, along with reserve defenseman Alex Trolenberg (Guilderland), are the lone players from Section II on the RPI roster. “The guys at Niskayuna did a great job with him, and he’s only getting better and better.”
Ted McKenna and Joe Cordrey beat Manchester 58 seconds apart in the third quarter, Condrey delivering on a man-up to make it a 5-4 contest, before Rensselaer answered with its decisive burst.
“They [Union] had all the momentum right there,” Townsend said. “Our guys did a great job of keeping their composure. That run was huge.”
Paul Cerone scored with 5:29 left in the third frame to begin Rensselaer’s surge, and after Union’s Charles Hovespian was penalized a minute for a cross check and another minute for unsportsmanlike conduct, the hosts got man-up goals from Conor Chocheles at 3:20 and Eric Valero at 2:39.
Valero beat Union netminder Sean Aaron with a behind-the-back blast for the game’s prettiest goal, and Johnson extended Rensselaer’s lead to 9-4 with 1:57 left.
“Everyone had to pick it up,” said Johnson, a senior midfielder. “We started getting ground balls, winning faceoffs, catching and passing, and it all clicked for us.”
Rensselaer was only 2-for-9 on its man-up opportunities, going 0-for-3 in second quarter.
“We only got the two, and that’s not something we like, but they were big ones,” Townsend said, before adding. “That’s something we’ve got to work on.”
Rensselaer will host No. 4 St. Lawrence (3-3, 8-6), and Union will host No. 3 Skidmore (4-2, 8-5) in Friday’s semifinals.
Union 1 0 4 2 — 7
Rensselaer 3 1 5 3 — 12
Union scoring: Brendan Kinnane 0-2, Ted McKenna 2-0, Ethan Meyer 1-0, Joe Cordrey 1-0, Peter Griesinger 3-0. Rensselaer scoring: Devin Arnold 2-0, Conor Chocheles 1-1, Nick Billy 1-1, Bryant Johnson 4-0, Paul Cerone 1-2, Wes Rudy 1-0, Eric Valero 2-0.
Goaltenders: Union, Sean Aaron, 11 saves. Rensselaer, James Manchester, 13 saves.
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