Union men’s lacrosse focused on itself entering NCAA tournament

Union's Brian Davis handles the ball next to Jack Gorman of St. Lawrence on May 4.
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Union's Brian Davis handles the ball next to Jack Gorman of St. Lawrence on May 4.

SCHENECTADY — The NCAA has made the unknown the star of every selection show it held, and there was plenty of that for the Union College men’s lacrosse team last Sunday.

The Dutchmen first knew they would host, and seconds thereafter knew they would play the winner of a first-round game between John Carroll and North Central. That meant a new opponent, and not one of the five tournament teams they faced in the regular season.

So it is that Union hosts John Carroll at noon Saturday at Frank Bailey Field. Lynchburg and Western New England will follow at 3 p.m., with the winners meeting in a third-round game at 3 p.m. Sunday.

A new team on Union’s radar is a good thing in coach Derek Witheford’s opinion.

“It turns the focus on ourselves,” he said. “Look in the mirror instead of focusing on another opponent.”

Union (14-2) should like what it sees in its reflection. Despite being upset by St. Lawrence in the semifinals of the Liberty League Tournament, it is still ranked seventh in Division III by USA Lacrosse Magazine and 10th by Inside Lacrosse. It was undefeated in non-league games (8-0) for the first time ever and went 5-2 against nationally ranked teams, including wins over Tufts and St. John Fisher.

“Hopefully it’s prepared us for this time right now,” Witheford said of the difficult non-league schedule.

Junior midfielder Jake Titus said the Tufts game stands out to him.

“I think that was a great achievement for our program,” Titus said. “Tufts is seen as this top-tier team in Division III, and we’re just as good as those guys and can hang with anyone.”

Union has outscored teams 235-144 and owns a big ground-ball advantage, 601-444.

Peter Burnes — who was named Liberty League Offensive Player of the Year — leads the team in scoring with 45 goals and 20 assists. The Dutchmen have two other 50-point scorers in Heyden Frey (32-24–56) and Keaton McCann (32-20–52).

On faceoffs, Sam Byrne and Matthew Paolatto have combined to win 64.4% of their draws this season.

Defensively, Union has been stingy all season, and has especially received good minutes from its short-stick defensive midfielders. It had three long poles — Matt Belluche, Ryan Puglisi and Clint Gourdeau — make the Liberty League first or second team, while goalie Dan Donahue, with a 9.53 goals-against average and .572 save percentage, made the Liberty League second-team.

But all systems will need to click in order to be successful this weekend. John Carroll’s defense ranks second in the country, allowing just 6.63 goals per game. Goalie Jon Gaglio is fifth in the country with a 7.03 goals-against average, to go with a .588 save percentage. Offensively, Matt Berdysiak has scored 72 goals, and Brendan Whitty has 54 assists.

It’s the first NCAA tournament appearance for Witheford as a head coach, though he experienced it at Union as an assistant coach.

“It’s special no matter who you’re with,” Witheford said. “We felt we had a great team in 2020 when the pandemic hit. And we felt we had a really great team last year, losing to RIT twice by two goals each time, and it was the eventual national champion. This team’s been in some big games and we’re just happy to be on the stage.”

But as long as the Dutchmen are there, they want it to be a memorable show.

“We talk about it all year, we’ve got bigger goals than Liberty League championships,” Burnes said. “This Saturday, hopefully we’ll bring the energy and do what we want to do.”

Categories: College Sports, Sports, Union College

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