Going into its game Saturday, the Michigan men’s lacrosse team knew one thing was certain: this was the final game of the season.
The Wolverines (0-5 Big Ten, 3-10 overall) were winless and last in the Big Ten prior to their game at No. 18 Penn State. Since only the top four teams in the conference advance to the Big Ten Tournament, it was already certain that their contest would be the last of the season. Even worse for Michigan, the Nittany Lions could guarantee themselves a spot in the tournament by winning — which they ended up doing, 14-9.
“It’s always a tough situation, especially given the timing at Michigan, where you’re done with classes and most of the guys are done with finals,” said Michigan coach John Paul. “It was a challenging week, and I thought the guys approached it about as well as they could.”
The Wolverines got off to a good start, taking a 2-1 lead halfway through the first period after goals from senior midfielder Chase Brown and senior attacker Peter Kraus. For the next 15 minutes, though, that was as good as it got.
With two minutes remaining in the first period, Penn State tied the game up, and from there, it was all Nittany Lions. Until halfway through the second period, Penn State scored six unanswered goals, surging ahead to a 7-2 lead. The Nittany Lions were able to control the ball near the Michigan net at will and make many short, quick passes around the goal. The Wolverines, on the other hand, struggled to maintain much pressure near the Penn State net, and usually were much further away from the net than their opponents.
But the game wasn’t over, and the Michigan seniors comprising the program’s first ever recruiting class weren’t ready to accept a loss in their final game in a Michigan uniform.
Halfway through the second period, Brown scored his second goal of the game, narrowing the deficit back to four. A Penn State goal three minutes later stretched the lead back to five, but senior midfielder Mike Hernandez and senior attacker Kyle Jackson responded, cutting the deficit down to three. The teams traded goals before halftime, giving the Nittany Lions a 9-6 lead.
“We turned the ball over too much,” Paul said. “Those were the limiting factors that kept giving Penn State opportunities to get back in it. We were doing such a good job facing off and getting the ball to our guys, and our offense was getting pretty good lucks, we just weren’t finishing.”
Coming out of the locker room, the Wolverines were fired up and ready to spoil Penn State’s tournament hopes. In the first three minutes of the second half, Kraus and sophomore Sean McCanna both scored, cutting the once insurmountable deficit all the way down to one.
“We just shot a little bit better,” Paul said. “I thought we took advantage of transition opportunities a little bit better. We had a period there where we were finishing and that allowed us to comeback.”
But one would be as close as it got. As emotional as the effort put forth by the Michigan seniors to try to win was, the game carried greater meaning for the Nittany Lion seniors who were playing at home on senior day with a conference tournament berth on the line. Even more, Penn State honored teammate Connor Darcey, who tragically passed away in a car accident last June, before the game.
The Nittany Lions responded with five goals after Kraus’s, taking a 14-8 lead. The Wolverines had a few chances in the fourth period — including two missed empty-net shots — but it wasn’t meant to be. Freshman midfielder Decker Curran cut the deficit to 14-9 with six minutes remaining, but Michigan was unable to score again.
The game likely would not have been as close as it was without the efforts of redshirt junior goaltender Gerald Logan, who had 12 saves on the day, many of which were at or near point-blank range. Despite his efforts, though, Michigan fell late after holding tight with a superior opponent for part of the game.
“Now we have to learn to win close games,” Paul said. “We’re able to get into them more often, now we have to finish them and win them. That will be the next stage of the program. I’m proud of our guys for continuing to move the program forward, our senior class is our first recruiting class. It’s not leaving a legacy of championships, they didn’t come here to do that, but they’re leaving a better team than they found, and that’s what we asked them to do.”