With 63% of its point productivity coming from freshmen and sophomores this season, the Michigan men’s lacrosse team knew that experience didn’t lean in its favor against a Rutgers starting lineup headlined by three graduate students and a redshirt senior.
Thanks in large part to freshman attackman Michael Boehm and sophomore attackman Josh Zawada, who racked up six- and four-point performances, respectively, the youth-led Wolverines nearly pulled off an upset win over the No. 8 Scarlet Knights on Sunday afternoon, but came up short, 13-12. Rutgers’ veteran experience ultimately prevailed in clutch time, as a late rebound goal from attackman Connor Kirst — the Villanova graduate transfer’s fifth of the day — riddled Michigan’s chances of notching its first victory over a top-10 opponent.
“We’ve been growing up,” Wolverines’ coach Kevin Conry said. “We’ve had to grow up over the past six weeks since the first time we played (the Scarlet Knights). … (But) early in the season, we weren’t in (these) tight games, so it’s really a maturation process. You don’t just show up with a busload of freshmen and expect to win one-goal games on a consistent basis when they’re just getting there.”
The offensive talent of Michigan’s underclassmen was visible early in the contest. After Rutgers midfielder Shane Knobloch failed to corral in a pass from his teammate, Wolverines’ freshman defenseman Jack Whitney scooped up the ground ball and raced down the field into the offensive zone. Whitney then swiftly offloaded the ball to Zawada, who rocketed in a sidearm goal to give his team the early 1-0 advantage.
On defense, Whitney’s abilities were on full display as well. As a member of Michigan’s maturing defensive unit, he helped hold Scarlet Knights’ attackman Adam Charalambides — a Tewaaraton Award nominee in his seventh season with Rutgers — out of the goal-scoring column.
“I think we put ourselves in good situations,” Zawada said. “The more we’ve gone throughout the season, we’ve stuck with a bunch of guys and built that chemistry and I think it’s starting to click.”
While the Wolverines kept pace with the Scarlet Knights, never trailing by more than three goals, there were several dimensions where experience proved to give Rutgers the edge. Michigan failed to capitalize when Scarlet Knight miscues ceded them four separate extra-man opportunities in the second half. Despite getting numerous lengthy offensive possessions, the Wolverines struggled to place shots past Scarlet Knights’ goalkeeper Colin Kirst, allowing the Lehigh graduate transfer to rack up 11 of his total 19 saves in the half.
“We’re gonna work on shooting,” Conry said. “Nineteen saves is a lot of saves. So I think we can really kind of identify where we can put better shots.”
Added Zawada: “I think (Colin) just got hot at the right time, which probably didn’t help us out a lot. Against other teams I think a lot of those shots would fall.”
Throughout the entirety of Sunday’s affair, Michigan stood toe-to-toe with one of the top programs in the country, a testament of its young roster’s growth since the beginning of the season. What the Wolverines lacked, though, Rutgers possessed: the battle-tested experience needed to put an opponent away at the game’s end.
And that disparity made all the difference.
“We knew what we had,” Conry said. “We knew we could compete with them. But at the end of the day, they’re a great team.”