It was a moment that has defined the Michigan men’s lacrosse team’s season.
A whistle sounded, and the Wolverines dropped to their knees. Some shook their heads, some looked down, some sagged in disbelief. All asked the question:
What went wrong?
Facing Penn State on April 8, Michigan found itself with its back against the wall.
Down 8-4 entering the fourth quarter of play with a potential home-advantage in the Big Ten Quarterfinals on the line, the team looked primed to suffer another embarrassing defeat.
In previous matchups, the Wolverines struggled to put it all together. There was the Harvard surprise, the Notre Dame collapse, and the Johns Hopkins naivete — all of which pointed to a team that was still not ready to compete at a high level.
But this felt different. At a point where it needed to play a perfect quarter, Michigan delivered on all accounts.
Offensively, the Wolverines hammered the Nittany Lions, scoring four goals by way of an oppressive 14 shots. They retained possession for the majority of the quarter and stifled any Penn State rebuttal.
On the other end, when the Nittany Lions were able to find any ball control, they achieved little success. Penn State logged just four shots, while also relinquishing four turnovers.
As the fourth quarter came to a close, Michigan had evened the score at 8-8 and seemed to control every aspect of momentum within the game.
Yet it was not meant to be.
After the opening overtime faceoff win by the Nittany Lions, Penn State raced into the offensive zone, holding for the best shot it could find. As the shot clock dwindled, the Michigan defense stiffened — as they had all second half — but with three seconds left, Nittany Lion junior Mac Costin found a lane and ripped a desperation shot.
A whistle sounded, and the Wolverines dropped to their knees. Some shook their heads, some looked down, some sagged in disbelief.
And one rose.
Standing high amongst his teammates was sophomore goalie Shane Carr.
As his six defenders rested on their haunches, contemplating in disbelief, Carr ripped his helmet off, and beat his chest fervently.
That’s on me. That’s on me.
That’s on me.
Carr proclaimed with his head held high, inviting his teammates into a huddle, as they marched off the field. Carr’s head distinguished amongst the maize and blue wings, he refused to put his helmet back on and walked off the field with his chin up amidst a crushing defeat.
“That’s what I said,” Carr affirmed afterwards. “When that overtime shot goes in past you … it’s kind of like slow motion of the ball just going right by your stick. No one else sees that. It is heartbreaking to see that.”
The term heartbreaking is an apt one. Emblematic of a Michigan season that has long since gone off the rails, an overtime loss to the formerly 2-8 Nittany Lions stands as a singular moment of what could have been.
Or for Shane Carr, what could still be.
Exactly two months ago, the narrative surrounding Michigan’s 2022 lacrosse season was entirely different.
On Feb. 19, the Wolverines completed a blasting of Holy Cross which saw Carr give up the fewest goals in a single game for a starting goaltender in program history: three. Carr was a rock in the bout, posting a shutout in the first half and logging eight total saves.
“Just to be able to put my name in the record books so early is definitely something,” Carr said. “It’s really a confidence booster too. … To be able to just be like ‘I’ve already come here, I’ve already done things that people haven’t done before,’ has really given me the confidence to be able to say ‘Ok I’ve done this and now we can go out and be some of the best teams to ever do it.’ ”
And for a time, 2022 looked like the year of the Wolverine. The team marched out to a 7-0 record — the best start in program history — upsetting then No. 17 Delaware, 18-8. Michigan found itself ranked No. 19 in the nation; powered by one of the most potent offenses in the country, and a stout defense, the Wolverines were surging.
Then came the hiccups.
Michigan’s first blemish came in a loss against Harvard. The Wolverines found themselves trailing early, but battled back to 6-5. Just as it seemed as though they had hit their groove, the team collapsed, allowing a 5-1 Crimson run that put the game out of reach for a final score of 14-9. This inability to hold on late became a recurring issue.
“When we played Harvard it was kind of a punch in the face,” Carr said.
And as with many punches, a second fist abruptly followed.
The following week, at Notre Dame, was more of the same. Michigan found itself down 6-2 entering the second half, before climbing back to a 7-4 deficit, then ceeding 5 straight goals, and watching the game dribble away to a losing final score of 12-7.
Sitting at a record of 7-2, it was clear that the Wolverines’ cracks were splitting open. Gone were the days of playing teams that could not slide on defense and lacked the speed to guard behind the net at X. In their place came well-oiled offensive machines that put Carr and his defense to the test.
“It’s honestly tough,” Carr said. “A lot of those goals, and a lot of the times when you get scored on, it’s on us, but also for us to be able to grow and learn from that we have to be able to take a step back and be like ‘Ok, we did mess up, that’s our fault, that’s on us, and then you have to take a look at the film.’ ”
Although 14 and 12 goals were not insurmountable offensive performances, Michigan’s offense had sputtered in response. It needed to rely more heavily on its defense. It needed to rely on Carr.
As Big Ten play opened against Johns Hopkins on March 26, the team had clearly switched its tune.
Abandoning its classic man-to-man style of defense, the Wolverines opted for a collapsing zone that clogged the front of the net, and forced the Blue Jays offense to come at Carr from the wings. And it worked.
Michigan struck out to an early lead, battling in a back and forth slugfest that saw eight straight goals by two different teams. Carr finished with 11 saves, keeping the team in it throughout. And though the effort wasn’t enough to bring home a win, something had changed.
“I know I can make saves and that’s why I’m in cage,” Carr said. “My team has trust in me, my defense has trust in me, and my coach has trust in me, so I have to trust myself to make the plays I need to going down that stretch during those last final minutes.”
And even after a competitive loss to No. 1 Maryland a week later, the trust continued to grow for Carr and the team.
It grew to the point where even after three rocky quarters against Penn State, the Wolverines stood tall with a statement fourth quarter, appearing to have reasserted their control over a spiraling season.
Yet it was not meant to be.
“I do feel like I could have had that shot,” Carr said. “But it’s tough. … I take a lot of pride in what I do, and when a ball does go in, I like to own up to it and say it’s on me, and that I’ll get the next one. Because I believe that I can make every save that I see.”
The following week, on senior night and the last home game of the season for Michigan, it once again found itself down entering the halftime break. Mounting one final comeback, the team tied the game at 12 with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. However, the Wolverines ceded one final goal with three minutes left in the game, and were unable to capitalize on an offensive possession that lasted the final minute of the game.
Carr described it best:
But Carr isn’t afraid of a little heartbreak here and there — or even a lot.
In a sport dominated by blue bloods, programs, traditions and standards don’t arrive overnight. They are built. Built by players like Shane Carr.
“I want to be the guy that takes this program to new heights and into a more established program,” Carr said. “It’s not always exciting (for some), but I like that excitement of building up — from the ground floor.”
Carr is far from the ground floor. Despite a six game losing streak, Carr boasts the No. 11 save percentage in the country (.560), the No. 14 position in goals against average (10.25) and the No. 29 spot in saves per game (12.23). In the face of heartbreak, Carr refuses to surrender.
“You can’t let the past pull you down,” Carr said. “And you have to move forward, especially in Big Ten play. If you dwell on the past, you’re not going to be able to succeed.”
And luckily for the Wolverines the past won’t matter soon. Each of the six teams in the Big Ten makes the tournament, regardless of any record. The team will get a clean slate, and although it has missed its chance at hosting a Big Ten Quarterfinal matchup — which would have been another first in program history — Michigan has one final opportunity in its back pocket.
“For us, right now, it’s perfect for us,” Carr said. “We have nothing to lose right now. Everyone has written us off. Everyone is saying that we’re not going to be able to do anything. With all six teams making the playoffs, it’s a fresh start, anything can happen. It’s only three games, you only have to go on a three game winning streak and we’re in the NCAA playoffs.”
For Michigan — losing streak or not — the moment will be there. The question is whether or not the team is ready to take it.
A three game winning streak — though it had two earlier in the schedule — is easier said than done for a team about to enter the hardest stretch of its season. However, if it is, Carr will undoubtedly be in the midst of it.
“I want to be national contenders,” Carr said. “I want to be in that top ten, in the talk for the Big Ten Championship, of course, and also the National Championships.”
To reach that point, though, the Wolverines must take control of a season that has been constituted by highs and lows.
To reach that point would mean changing from the heartbroken, to the heartbreakers.