By the final game in a disappointing season, weary athletes and coaches are prone to succumb to the emotional fatigue of losing. A year of not living up to expectations can make the final games feel like an afterthought.
That is, unless Michigan is playing Ohio State.
“I think whenever you see that big ‘O’ it changes the mindset,” said Michigan coach Kevin Conry. “You throw all the records out the window. They’re a very good team, they’ve had a great year, and obviously we didn’t have the year that we had wanted.
“But still, it’s The Game — it’s Michigan and Ohio State.”
Playing on senior night in front of the first sell-out crowd in University of Michigan Lacrosse Stadium history, the Michigan men’s lacrosse team (4-9 overall, 1-4 Big Ten) fed on every ounce of additional motivation en route to a 13-10 victory over the 10th-ranked Buckeyes (8-4 overall, 1-4 Big Ten). Friday night’s win was the program’s first ever against their rival, snapping a seven-game losing streak dating back to the Wolverines’ varsity debut in 2012. Michigan earned its first Big Ten win of the season and ended an eight-game losing streak while preventing Ohio State from earning a Big Ten Tournament berth.
In order to secure the milestone, the Wolverines overcame a problematic theme of their season — giving up goals to start and end quarters. The first such instance came at the end of the opening frame. With Michigan up 4-1, Ohio State answered the Wolverines’ three-goal scoring run with a three-goal run of their own, knotting the score at four when Buckeyes’ attackman Colby Smith scored just 20 seconds into the second quarter.
Rather than let the game get away from them as it had at times earlier in the season, the team responded swiftly. Freshman attackman Bryce Clay scored only a minute after Smith’s equalizing tally to retake the lead. Clay didn’t stop there, scoring the game’s next two goals in the following nine minutes. Following senior midfielder Decker Curran’s goal, Michigan went into halftime with an 8-4 lead.
In a quarter that began with disaster, the Wolverines outscored the Buckeyes 4-1.
“We came into the game super patient,” said sophomore attackman Alex Buckanavage. “(The) first thing coach said was just, ‘(Have a) patient, one more (pass) mentality.’ I went in with that mindset, just being patient, looking for the one more. I could have shot a couple times, but the one more pass just seemed like it was so much better.”
This approach paid off for Buckanavage, who tied the program single-game assist record at four and also tallied a goal in the contest. Timely stops and a potent offense guided by this crucial patience ensured Michigan never lost the lead, even when Ohio State made pushes to get back in the game. In the third quarter, the Buckeyes’ most effective period of offense throughout the season, the Wolverines allowed Ohio State to score four times, but three tallies of their own prevented them from losing the lead.
One of three came from senior attackman Brent Noseworthy, who has been playing through a right knee injury for several games. His goal during the third quarter against Ohio State made him the first Michigan men’s lacrosse player to score 100 career goals. Noseworthy scored twice in the game’s final quarter to complete a hat trick and extend the Wolverine lead to four, ensuring a Buckeye comeback was impossible.
“This week just meant more, because it is The Game — we’re playing Michigan-Ohio State,” Noseworthy said. “And top of that too, it’s the last time we’re playing together with the guys that we have in the locker room, so everyone from coaching staff to freshmen all the way up to seniors was just giving everything they had, and that’s the result we saw on the field.”
It was a fitting end to the career of the 12 seniors who were honored prior to the game. Along with Noseworthy’s hat trick, senior defenseman Nick DeCaprio registered three caused turnovers and two ground balls, while senior midfielder Decker Curran collected two goals and an assist. Senior goaltender Gunner Garn also turned in his best start of the season since assuming the role four games ago with a performance Conry described as “unbelievable,” making nine saves and stopping several odd-man opportunities.
Despite the Buckeyes being forced to play without one of their most dangerous offensive threats, Tre Leclaire, Michigan played at a level it had not shown it was capable of all season. Despite losing 24 of the game’s 26 faceoffs and being outshot 42-28, the Wolverines were able to go 20-for-22 on clears and cause 12 turnovers to Ohio State’s three. According to Conry, this team’s signature win is a product of their work throughout the year, even if it didn’t show at times.
“Nobody could hear from the sidelines (because of the wind) so it was up to them to communicate to each other,” said Conry. “And it was something we’ve been working on for the better part of the entire year and it finally just kind of clicked this week. … I give a lot of credit to a guy like (senior defenseman) Michael Borda, who has been a rock in the middle of the defense and a guy that we really rely on to take control and to help groom these younger players into communicating-type guys.”
As Michigan enters an important offseason preceding Conry’s third year at the program’s helm, the team now has blueprint for big wins — unceasing communication and unrelenting intensity. As a new batch of D-I recruits enters, it will be time to see if the team can put together an effort to compete for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament.
If they play like they did against their biggest rival over the course of a season, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.