SCHENECTADY — Technically, the Union College men’s lacrosse team is trying for its second national title on Sunday. The 1929 team was declared the USILA co-national champions with Navy after posting a 7-0 record.
This time, there will be no declarations without proof on the field first.
Union (18-2) plays in the program’s first national championship game against fellow Liberty League foe Rochester Institute of Technology at 1 p.m. Sunday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. There is no other team the Dutchmen would rather face in this game than RIT, which has won the last 20 matchups.
It hasn’t been easy to try to beat the Tigers before, and on paper, Sunday might be the hardest time yet.
“It’s not easy, but if it were, everyone would do it,” Union coach Derek Witheford said.
Witheford hopes that it being a known opponent takes some of the nerves away from playing a national championship game.
As RIT coach Jake Coon said, the probability of two Liberty League teams meeting for the national title was, on the one hand, very slim. On the other hand, he’s also not surprised.
“This is probably unprecedented, having two teams from the same league participating,” Coon said. “Typically with more of a north-south format, it doesn’t line up that way. It never crossed our minds until we saw the bracket and thought, ‘Wow, there’s that potential there.’ As it started to narrow down and when it got to the quarterfinal round and we were both still out there, we were pretty familiar with some of those teams down there. We played York, obviously Union as well. We thought it was a real possibility, and here we are. Union’s a very good team, we know that.”
RIT may have won the last 20 games against Union, but both squads know that they’ve been close games the last four years. The teams didn’t play in the extremely short 2020 season before the pandemic shut things down, but in the six games between them from 2019 to present, Union has lost by a total of 17 goals. This year’s earlier contest was a 14-13 RIT win.
Both teams got to this point with depth. Across the board, there’s not a weakness in any area.
For Union, which had a school-record 10 players named USILA All-Americans on Thursday, it starts with defense and honorable mention All-American goalie Dan Donahue, who has a 9.36 goals against average and .574 save percentage. In front of him at close defense are two All-Americans in first-teamer Matt Belluche and honorable mention Ryan Puglisi, as well as short-stick defensive midfielder Jake Titus, a second-team All-American.
At the midfield and attack, Union has skilled players anywhere it turns, among them All-Americans Peter Burnes, Keaton McCann and Hayden Frey on attack and Matthew Paolatto, Brian Davis and Kieran McGovern at midfield. McCann and Frey rank in the top 10 in program history, as McCann is sixth on the all-time goals list with 119, and Frey is sixth in career points with 168.
The awards are nice, but they’re not the measure of this team. All season, Witheford has used the phrase, “special group” to describe it. He finally further defined it.
“It’s senior and fifth-year leadership,” Witheford said. “It’s appreciation for what they have and what they don’t have — having that COVID year, when someone takes away something you love, it makes it a little bit more important. They know they have a limited time together, and they approach every day and every week and every year like that. And they want whatever’s best for the team; it’s the most unselfish group I’ve ever seen.”
Witheford said his team’s grittiness has served it well this season.
“We practice tough, we try to break one stick a day, at least,” Witheford said. “It’s because of the kids we have. We have kids that maybe don’t get the looks from an Ivy League or a NESCAC school, and I think we recruit kids that are told maybe they’re not good enough to play at a Division I level, so I think they carry that chip on their shoulder.”
“They’re top-to-bottom talented,” Coon agreed. “I give Derek a lot of credit. He’s done an awesome job really bringing that group together, and excited to get after it on Sunday with those guys.”
Coon can be excited for obvious reasons. For starters, the Tigers (21-1) are the defending national champions, so they’ve been here before and know how to balance the emotion with the physicality of the game. Witheford said Union must do that if it’s to have a chance at winning, noting it has to stay out of the penalty box.
RIT averaged over 21 goals per game through the first four games of the NCAA Tournament, and it ranks seventh in Division III in scoring offense, with 18.14 goals per game. That’s partly due to its transition game, as RIT leads the nation in clearing percentage (.909).
Luke Pilcher leads the offense with 58 goals and 20 assists. The Tigers have two other 60-point players in Quinn Commandant (42-25) and Marley Angus (38-25). Defensively, Taylor Jensen leads the team with 45 caused turnovers and an impressive 76 ground balls.
“We think Taylor Jensen is one of the best in the country,” Coon said. “He just causes a lot of havoc and does a great job.”
“They’re disciplined and they’re great defensively, which not a lot of people talk about. A lot of people know about their offense, but their defense is stout. They’re really well balanced from top to bottom,” Witheford said of RIT.
Both coaches said the teams know each other better than anyone, so there is little sense in changing schemes. It will simply come down to execution.