With less than 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Michigan men’s lacrosse team was down 13-11 and in need of a faceoff win.
Sophomore forward Nick Rowlett scooped up the ground ball, emerging from the faceoff victorious. As he raced toward the Merrimack goal down the left-wing, a group of Warriors defenders mobbed him. Rowlett was left in a heap on the ground and midfielder Jack Barron picked up the loose ball for Merrimack — and with the ball went a crucial opportunity for the Wolverines.
It was a similar theme all of Saturday afternoon Michigan (2-2 overall) who fell, 14-12, to Merrimack (1-3), handing the Warriors their first Division I victory after winning back-to-back national titles in Division II the past two years.
“You know every Division I lacrosse game is physical,” fifth-year senior attacker Rocco Sutherland said. “But like I said before they just wanted it more, they were more gritty than us and that’s something we gotta do better ourselves.”
The Wolverines fell behind in the first quarter after a point-blank save by goalie Peter Brown led to a Warriors counter-attack. Attacker Sean Black finished strong with a powerful shot.
Later in the quarter, penalties caused problems for Michigan. With the extra-man offense, Merrimack scored to make it 3-1. In the aftermath of the goal, it was awarded another penalty for unnecessary roughness on fifth-year senior midfielder Peter Hollen. The Warriors converted again with a man up to take a 4-1 lead with 4:10 to play in the first.
The Wolverines responded with a man-up goal of their own from junior attacker Kevin Mack to make it 4-2. But, the Michigan defense didn’t hold as Black drew in two defenders on the other end, dropping off to forward Allyn French who didn’t miss from close range to make it 5-2 at the end of the first quarter.
“I think we went into this game knowing how powerful they were offensively,” Michigan coach Kevin Conry said. “But we felt if we could control the X and control the middle of the game, middle of the field with our ride, which we were successful with they failed (to) cleared five times and with our faceoff game we thought we would do better at the X. 11 for 29 (on faceoffs) is just not good enough. It’s not good enough.”
In the second period, the Wolverines came out strong. Sutherland scored with a low shot into the right corner less than four minutes into the period to make it 5-3. The teams traded goals to make the score 7-5 with 7:07 to play in the period. A Merrimack faceoff violation penalty shifted the momentum in Michigan’s favor.
Capitalizing on the momentum, the Wolverines scored three straight goals and freshman midfielder Josh Zawada led the charge.
First, Zawada provided an assist to make it 7-6. A Warriors turnover then led to another Michigan goal. With just over a minute to play, the Wolverines took a timeout with possession. Out of the timeout, Zawada ran to his right and shot the ball into the right corner giving Michigan an 8-7 lead — its first of the game — just 11 seconds before halftime. The Wolverines, though, outshot Merrimack 17-4 in the second quarter and easily could have increased their lead by more.
“I think we had a great look right before the end of the half,” Conry said. “Where Bryce (Clay) put one off the pipe. That’s a game-changing moment right there that just didn’t fall. A couple of those ridebacks we had an opportunity to move the ball we just kinda got it stuck on our sticks so we’re going to continually work on it.”
In the third period after trading goals, the Warriors tied the game at 10 with an acrobatic, behind-the-back shot by attacker Charlie Bertrand. At the end of the period, the two teams were deadlocked at 11.
“I thought we rode a little bit of the emotional roller-coaster,” Conry said. “We rode the highs when we were high and we rode the lows when we were low. (The) team can’t do that, we got to play for 60 minutes.”
As a result of those inconsistencies, Merrimack took back control in the fourth quarter. Bertrand added a fourth goal off a Michigan turnover and Black scored two more goals to seal the victory. Keller added a goal inbetween for the Wolverines, but a turnover deep in the Warriors end dashed Michigan’s hopes of a comeback. After the game, audible cheers echoed from the visitor’s locker room to the nearby press room.
“They were just better off the ground balls,” Sutherland said. “We threw it away a bunch of times, they just had more composure than us. And we’re a young team and that’s gonna come with a young team being rattled out there on the field but we just gotta keep more composure and grow as a team.”