In a rough first season in Division-I play, the Michigan men’s lacrosse team has continuously struggled with maintaining possession of the ball. But this past Saturday, the young Wolverines put together their most complete game yet — other than their sole victory over Mercer — against a highly motivated Rutgers team in Piscataway, N.J.
Unfortunately, the same bad habits that have plagued Michigan (1-12) all season that led to their 13-9 loss.
Despite the final four-goal difference, the Wolverines played a hotly-contested game throughout the first three quarters and halfway into the final stretch. But it was the continued struggles of losing the ground ball battle, lost face-offs and turnovers that allowed the Scarlet Knights to gain possession of the ball and take almost twice as many shots as Michigan.
From the start of the game, Michigan coach John Paul knew Rutgers (6-8) was going to be an aggressive team looking for a win over the Wolverines.
“(They) were a hungry team,” Paul said. “They lost three straight. It was their senior night. They execute what they do very well. We knew we would have to battle the emotion they were going to have coming into the game.”
The game started off slowly for Michigan when it allowed Rutgers to take a 4-2 lead, an uncharacteristic scoring run for a team that had scored first in seven of their past ten games. Yet the Wolverines weren’t quitting on themselves that early in the game.
“We corrected a few things,” said junior attackman Thomas Paras. “We have a really good mentality that regardless of no matter what the score is … just knowing there is time on the clock there is an opportunity to win the game, even with the deficit we faced in the first quarter.”
But almost as surprising was the 3-0 run Michigan made in the second quarter. For just the third time this year, the Wolverines walked into the locker room with a halftime lead and the momentum in their favor.
When the two teams came out onto the field for the third quarter, Paras made his first of two goals less than two minutes into the half. His goal sparked a three-goal counter-attack by Rutgers that gave the Scarlet Knights a 7-6 lead. The fast-paced style of play was foreign territory for the Wolverines, but the team was proud with how they handled the hectic style of play.
“We are not a transition type team,” Paras said. “I know that is not the type of game we are trying to get in to, but I don’t think it hurt us at all because we were able to keep up with it.”
Michigan wasn’t out of the fight, though, when senior defenseman Austin Swaney scored his first goal of the season — less than a minute after the Scarlet Knights’ run — to tie the game at seven. Rutgers scored one more time in the third quarter to give them a one-goal lead to start the fourth.
Another early Michigan goal from fifth-year senior attackman Trevor Yealy tied the game again early in the fourth quarter, but everything seemed to fall apart for the Wolverines for the next few minutes.
Michigan failed to win a face-off in the final quarter and it dug up only four ground balls that paled in comparison to its opponent’s 14, allowing Rutgers to take 12 shots, and giving up four more turnovers in the final frame. All of these stats added together equaled too many opportunities for the Knights for the Wolverines to handle, and a 13-9 loss.
“It wasn’t defensive, it was possessions, especially in the fourth quarter,” Paul said. “We got ‘out-groundballed’ pretty significantly in the fourth quarter. We didn’t win a face-off in the fourth quarter. Those two things all in that quarter equaled more possessions for them, and that certainly added up.”
The mistakes that Michigan has continuously made have added up to their 12 losses this season, but Saturday’s loss had a different feel to it. The Wolverines started the game down early, but came back to take a half time lead. Then when the Scarlet Knights had a hot scoring streak to begin the third quarter Michigan found a way to answer. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the young Wolverines looked inexperienced and outmatched.
Unfortunately these types of improvements have come too late in the season. Next Saturday, Michigan will play its final game against No. 9 North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. — its toughest competition yet.
“They could be the most talented team in the country,” Paul said. “They are hot right now. They are playing as well as any team in the country right now. It should be a tremendous challenge for us.”