EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – Union College played about as good a first half as it could Sunday. But it was RIT’s second-half adjustment that won the day.
Switching to a zone defense, the defending national champion rallied past Union 12-10 to win the NCAA Division III men’s lacrosse national championship at Rentschler Field.
Union (18-3) led by as much as 7-2 with 4:49 left in the second quarter, but RIT (22-1) scored the final two goals of that quarter and the first six of the second half. And the Tigers know what to do with a lead.
Union scored two late first-quarter goals by Brian Davis and Jack Donahue to take a 3-1 lead after that quarter. It increased the lead to 7-2 on goals by Keaton McCann, Hayden Frey, Kieran McGovern and Peter Burnes, who led Union with two goals and two assists.
“We knew that they were going to go on and we had to keep our foot on the gas,” McCann said. “It felt good to go up, but we knew it was going to be a battle until the end.”
“They were doing a great job coming up with a lot of ground balls the first quarter,” RIT coach Jake Coon said. “They dominated us in that area and that’s usually where we dominate. Tough to get possessions.
“We went to the zone, we had confidence,” Coon added. “We came into the game knowing it worked for us last time. We played them this year and saw some flaws in their zone offense, so we were going to try it early on [in the second half] and it seemed to be working, so we just went with it. It was better than expected, I guess. It slowed them down.”
Union coach Derek Witheford said the zone, coupled with Union’s mistakes, hurt it in a 4-0 RIT third quarter, allowing the Tigers to take an 8-7 lead. He also gave credit to RIT goalie Drew Hutchison, who made 16 saves and was named the game’s most outstanding player.
“I think we had some bad offensive turnovers that led to transition goals and a couple subbing miscues that led to some easy goals that got them back in the game,” Witheford said. “But honestly, I think their goalie caught fire in the second half. He made some really good [saves] in the second half.”
RIT was able to get its transition game going in the third quarter, and for a team that had averaged over 22 goals per game in the playoffs, that was something Union didn’t want.
“We want to get up and down,” said RIT attackman Quinn Commandant, who had three goals and an assist. “Not being able to do that early in the game hurt us a little bit. As we got going, Hutchie was getting the ball out real quick, we were able to get out and run.”
RIT increased its lead to 10-7, but Union finally broke the scoreless streak on Frey’s second goal of the game at 11:26 of the fourth quarter – a span of 23 minutes, 13 seconds, Union’s second-longest scoring drought this season behind only the 27:29 span in its loss to St. Lawrence in the Liberty League semifinals.
Part of winning a national championship game is skill, but luck is needed too, and Union was unlucky in the fourth quarter. Despite the fact it got two more goals from McGovern and Davis, it also hit the posts on four shots in the final six-and-a-half minutes.
“We were just waiting for that one moment, that one swing,” McCann said.
It was RIT’s 21st consecutive win over Union, but it was another close outcome, as they’ve nearly all been for the last three years.
“I’m very happy we made it this far, and I think we gave RIT probably the best run for their money all year,” Witheford said. “I like the formula we have. We seem to do it better than a lot of other teams. That’s a great team – back-to-back national championship teams – so not going to change everything we’re doing. I think we just need to attack the zone a little better.”
It was a good-sized crowd on a sunny day, with Union fans slightly outnumbering the RIT fans.
“We knew going into the game we’d have a lot of support, and it might be an advantage for us, and it was good to see. It was a cool thing to be a part of,” McGovern said.
Union 3 4 0 3 – 10
RIT 1 3 4 4 – 12
Union scoring: Burnes 2-2, Frey 2-0, B.Davis 2-0, McGovern 2-0, McCann 1-2, J.Donahue 1-0, Belluche 0-1. RIT scoring: Commandant 3-1, Angus 2-2, Mozrall 2-2, Barnable 1-1, Pilcheer 1-1, Gaston 1-0, Bell 1-0, Grottenthaler 1-0, Bruno 0-1, Eistrat 0-1. Goalies: Union, D.Donahue, 12 saves. RIT, Hutchison, 16 saves.