SCHENECTADY — It was nearly a disaster, until it turned to ecstasy.
Having trailed Western New England for nearly the entirety of Saturday’s NCAA Division III men’s lacrosse tournament second-round game at Frank Bailey Field, Union had finally managed to tie the game early in the fourth quarter.
That’s when the Dutchmen nearly threw away their best opportunity to take their first lead of the game, only for it to end up as the best bounce the team’s gotten all season.
On a restart after the Union defense forced a turnover, Clint Gourdeau overshot midfielder Peter Kip with a long clearing pass.
But, in what ended up as an incredible stroke of luck for the Dutchmen, the loose ball was misplayed by Western New England defender Michael Knapp and it bounced straight into the stick of Union attackman Emmett Lyne, who shoveled a backhand pass to Jake Mabardy on the doorstep of the crease for the go-ahead goal that paved the way for Union’s 15-13 gut-check win.
“We knew we had numbers up the field, and I saw the ball go over Peter Kip’s head,” Mabardy said. “Emmett Lyne, a freshman, made a great play and picked up a tough groundball. I was just lucky I was standing there. He made a great pass, and I was able to catch it and put it in.”
Union (12-6 overall), last year’s Division III national runner-up, spent nearly all of Saturday’s contest on the back foot.
The Dutchmen fell behind 3-0 before the game was four minutes old, and while they did tie the game at 4-4 early in the second quarter, Western New England (12-9 overall) quickly restored a three-goal advantage and led by as many as four in the second half before Union closed the game with a 7-1 surge — including a 5-0 run to end the game that included a pair of highlight-reel backhanded goals from Justin Greene and Mabardy to finally tie things up.
“I think most of us had the same mentality throughout the game,” Greene said. “This was our game to lose, and we didn’t plan on losing.”
Union will host Middlebury, a 10-9 winner over St. Mary’s in the first game of Saturday’s NCAA doubleheader at Frank Bailey Field, in a third-round game Sunday at 3 p.m., with the winner moving on to next weekend’s quarterfinals.
The game swung in the second half following a key defensive adjustment made by Union head coach Derek Witheford.
Just past the midway point of the third quarter, the Golden Bears’ Dylan Hanley scored his fourth goal of the game, putting Western New England up 12-8.
At that point, Witheford switched up his defensive assignments, moving Seamus Foley onto Hanley and bumping up Gourdeau — who had been guarding Hanley — to match up against midfielder Zachary Mein.
Through the first 38 minutes, Mein and Hanley combined for seven goals and three assists. Over the final 22 minutes, the two didn’t record a single point, and the Golden Bears scored just one more goal.
“We needed a change of scenery,” Witheford said. “We bumped Clint Gourdeau up to guard No. 14 [Mein], because he was giving us some problems as well. Hanley was really good and did some really tough things, and Seamus did a great job when we switched him on to him. He was ready for any matchup.”
“Hats off to [Foley],” Hanley said. “He had a great game.”
The defensive changes helped Union stall out what had been a red-hot Western New England offense, but the Dutchmen still trailed 13-11 heading past the midway point of the fourth quarter.
That’s when, on back-to-back possessions, Greene and Mabardy scored nearly identical goals. On restarts from behind the cage in the final seconds of the shot clock, the two Dutchmen — first Greene, then Mabardy — beat their defenders, turned the corner and flipped backhand shots past WNE goalie Carter Randall to make it 13-13 with 4:48 to play.
“I think we scored four backhand goals today,” Witheford said. “Which, you know, is a little unconventional. I would prefer they shoot overhand, but they went in — and that’s all I’ve got to say.”
“The low shot clock plays allow you to kind of turn off your brain and attack with no remorse,” Greene said. “The ball found its way to the net.”
After the wild sequence that led to Mabardy’s go-ahead goal with 3:26 remaining, Zach Davis gave the Dutchmen some insurance with 1:14 to play when he scored yet another goal in the late stages of the shot clock.
Davis, Union’s leading scorer with 32 goals during the regular season, was quiet for the game’s first 40 minutes, but scored a hat trick in the game’s final 20:24.
Greene also scored three goals, while the Union attack trio of Lyne, Mabardy and Archie McEvoy each finished with two goals and an assist.
Union goalie Dan Donahue finished with 13 saves, and Matthew Paolatto won 16 of 30 faceoffs.
Now, the Dutchmen have a quick turnaround to face a Middlebury team that beat them 15-9 on March 21, the same game where Union lost All-American attackman Peter Burnes to an injury that’s kept him out of the lineup ever since.
“It’s going to be a really hard-fought game,” Witheford said. “We’re going to be confident if we go down early, but that’s not in the game plan.”
Western New England 4 5 3 1 — 13
Union 3 4 2 6 — 15
Western New England scoring: Hanley 4-2, Bannon 1-0, Kolb 0-2, Mein 3-1, Labbe 1-0, Rust 0-1, Roy 3-0, Callahan 1-0. Union scoring: Davis 3-0, Mabardy 2-1, McEvoy 2-1, Kip 3-1, Greene 3-0, Smith 0-1, Lyne 2-1. Goalies: Western New England, Randall, 13 saves. Union, Donahue, 13 saves.