SCHENECTADY – Ryan Puglisi came back for one more year of college so he could watch the entire “Planet of the Apes” reboot trilogy – total running time six hours, 15 minutes – on a bus.
OK, that’s a stretch.
But Puglisi, a mechanical engineering major at Union College from north of Boston, had a good job waiting for him, one that he was expected by his employers to start at the beginning of last year.
Based on opportunity lost – but also potential opportunity gained – the veteran defenseman had an epiphany, instead, and decided to postpone the real world for one more shot at an NCAA Division III men’s lacrosse national championship that Union may have been chasing in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
Well, maybe not everything. Perhaps it was simply a postponement, in this case.
Two years later, the Dutchmen will play arch rival Rochester Institute of Technology in the national championship game at 1 p.m. Sunday in East Hartford, Connecticut. The Union roster includes a dazzling array of fresh young talent, but also a six-man old guard of fifth-year seniors who are kidded for their age, but are also indispensable for their productivity, leadership and experience.
All six could have moved on with their lives and be out in the work force, but came back, maybe not for the long bus rides, but certainly for another shot at a national title. If the Dutchmen are able to pull this off, it will be in large part because those six – Puglisi, Brian Davis, Matthew Georgiades, Kieran McGovern, Hayden Frey and Keaton McCann – did come back.
“I was a little worried at first that I would still be here and not all of them would come back, but when they all made the decision, it was super-easy,” Davis said.
“It shows their commitment and their loyalty to this school and program … and to each other,” head coach Derek Witheford said. “I think some of these student-athletes could’ve transferred to some Division I schools, if they so desired, but they chose to stay here, and it looks like it paid off, finally. So I’m very happy for those guys. And they embody what this program is about.”
“This season has gone about as good as it possibly could for us,” Puglisi said. “At the time, two years ago, 2020, I would say it was our year that we had sights on a national championship the most. Coming back the next year, losing the people we did, we weren’t sure how it was going to be.
“Two years in advance, I’m not seeing that far ahead [to 2022]. It wasn’t writing on the wall as much as take every opportunity of playing the sport I love for another year.”
Puglisi was the first to examine the prospect and process of withdrawing from school to use the extra year of eligibility the NCAA provided to athletes, many of whom had all or most of a season canceled because of the pandemic.
Union doesn’t offer any post-grad academic tracks, so once you graduate, your playing days there are done.
Puglisi said his father suggested that he withdraw from Union during the lost season, then return to finish his senior academic year while playing lacrosse on a team that promised to make a deep postseason run.
“It was a no-brainer for me,” he said. “The second we got sent home in the spring of 2020, I just withdrew from classes, worked that whole time and gave myself the classes I needed to finish up my degree [in 2022] and be able to come back and play this year.
“When I withdrew I let all my classmates know, ‘Hey guys, I’m withdrawing this term, I’m going to come back for another year and play another season, look into it, tell me if you have any questions. I talked to everyone I needed to, administratively, to get it done, so let me know if you have questions.’ The five guys that are back alongside me are the ones that reached out and talked about it.”
“That was a huge part of it,” Davis said, of the potential for a championship. “Our class, when I came in as a sophomore [after a year at Delaware], was loaded. And last year, there were three guys who graduated and didn’t come back. We believed in ourselves, as a group that was coming back, but then we believed in the other guys, too.”
That belief has paid off in a big way.
Union has lost just two of 20 games, to St. Lawrence in the Liberty League playoffs and to – *ahem* – RIT during the regular season, by a score of 14-13.
Despite losing in the league tournament, the Dutchmen’s body of work over the regular season was plenty strong enough to merit an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Then they got on a roll, beating John Carroll and Western New England at Frank Bailey Field the weekend of May 14-15, and getting past Gettysburg and York last weekend to reach Sunday’s title game against RIT. The Dutchmen didn’t get back from the long Gettysburg/York trip, during which “Planet of the Apes” served as entertainment part of the way between Newport News, Virginia, and Schenectady, until 5:30 Monday morning.
Union has lost 20 straight games to RIT, dating back to 2008, so there are Dutchmen players who are long gone who never beat the Tigers.
That serves as extra motivation for the fifth-years.
“For me, fifth year, full circle,” Puglisi said. “Haven’t beat ‘em yet since I’ve been here at Union for my five years. I don’t know, if we go out and play our game, we’ll give them a hell of a game.
“I have no idea. Seven or eight [losses] at this point? The last three times, we’ve played one-goal games. We’re right there. Just got to capitalize when we need to.”
The six Union fifth-years, five of whom are captains, aren’t just grizzled sages whose only contribution is advice and guidance.
McCann, Frey and McGovern are second, third and fourth, respectively, on the team points list for the season.
Still, “We get some lip from the younger guys,” Davis said with a grin. “I know, originally, coach was a little worried, with football teams and all these teams having fifth-year eligibility, but we haven’t seen any bump in terms of leadership. The regular seniors, Matt Belluce, Peter Burnes, Sam Byrne, they’re just as big of leaders.”
You can draw a parallel between the last two years for Union men’s lacrosse and the “Planet of the Apes” trilogy that rolled during that interminable bus ride back from Virginia last weekend:
“Rise …,” “Dawn” … “Battle.”
No matter what happens on Sunday, the six Union fifth-years are more than happy they stuck around for the ending.
“I’ve accepted a job next year in New York city working in software sales, so I would probably be doing something like that and watching these guys and eating my heart out,” Davis said. “I know some of the guys who graduated last year are making money working, but I imagine part of them is maybe regretting a little bit that they’re not still part of this group, because it’s pretty special.”