Bulldogs advance to NEC Championship with 11-9 win over Sacred Heart

Photo by Gretchen McMahon Photography.com

TOP-SEEDED BRYANT TO DEFEND REGULAR-SEASON, NEC TOURNAMENT TITLE SATURDAY AFTER 11-9 VICTORY OVER PIONEERS

SMITHFIELD, R.I. – Behind six points from senior captain Peter McMahon (Wilton, Conn.) and 13 saves from redshirt-freshman Gunnar Waldt (Freeland, Md.), the top-seeded Bryant University men's lacrosse team advanced to Saturday's Northeast Conference Tournament Championship with an 11-9 victory over four-seed Sacred Heart Thursday afternoon at Bulldog Stadium.

The Bulldogs (7-10) never trailed after equalizing a game-opening goal by the Pioneers (3-11) with 4:48 left in the first frame, the first of three-straight tallies scored in just a 23-second span to jumpstart postseason play for the defending tournament and 2013 regular-season champs.

The game saw newly crowned NEC Player of the Year Kevin Massa (Huntington, N.Y.) go 15-for-23 from the faceoff X and also saw the sophomore phenom break the NCAA Division I record for ground balls in a season. His game-high nine Thursday afternoon gives him 203 on the season, marking the first time a player has topped the 200-ground ball mark in a single campaign in NCAA Division I history. Massa now has 340 ground balls in just two years at the collegiate level.

"It's just a remarkable feat," said head coach Mike Pressler. "That record has lasted since 2006, and we are so proud of and so happy for Kevin. No one is more deserving, and I feel the same way about his position coach, Casey Brodersen, as well."

The Bulldogs jumped out in front with a bang in the opening quarter of the first NEC Semifinal, scoring four times in the final five minutes for the 4-1 advantage. The three-goal, 23-second streak saw markers from junior attack Dan Sipperly (Greenwich, N.Y.), assisted by NEC Rookie of the Year Shane Morrell (Glen Mills, Pa.), followed by consecutive scores from all-conference first teamer Alex Zomerfeld (Port Jefferson, N.Y.), the first assisted by fellow first team pick and the nation's top longpole scorer in senior Tewaaraton Trophy semifinalist Mason Poli (Downingtown, Pa.).

Junior Bo Redpath (Norwich, Vt.) gave the hosts a three-goal lead just as the first-period clock expired off the first assist of the day from McMahon.

"That was a first," said Pressler. "I can't remember doing that before. We score in bunches because of the faceoff – that is a big part of what we do."

Sacred Heart cut the home team's edge to two 57 seconds into the second stanza off an unassisted Matt King score, but McMahon would find real estate behind goalie Jon Flood twice more before Alex Miller and Tim Canton scored 16 seconds apart to renew the two-goal margin with just over three to play before the break.

But as the clock ticked under the two-minute mark, Poli took a pass from Zomerfeld and wound up, firing a bullet into the Sacred Heart net for the 7-4 halftime margin.

In the third, the Pioneers cut their deficit to two once again with 11:41 on the clock, but McMahon's response came less than a minute later as the senior all-league second teamer completed his second-consecutive hat trick for an 8-5 Bryant advantage.

"Peter is playing the best lacrosse of his career right now, especially in the last two games," said Pressler. "That's what you need – your two-year captain and four-year starter to step up – and Peter is doing that now when we need him the most."

Thursday's visitors weren't going away, though, and Cody Marquis capitalized on a JK Poirier (Coatesville, Pa.) penalty for a man-up goal with 10 to play to get back within a pair. But once again, the Black and Gold responded to the pressure, notching two goals from Sipperly – both assisted by McMahon – and a man-up score from rookie Collins Gantz (Denver, Colo.) off a pass from Zomerfeld for an 11-6 advantage.

The Bulldogs would need every bit of that lead, though, as the Pioneers would take over the fourth quarter, scoring each of the frame's three goals in the opening seven minutes to cut the score to 11-9, as Bryant went just 2-for-4 on the clear with seven turnovers and just two shots in the final 15 minutes.

But the Bryant defense would hold strong for the final 7:12, as Waldt made five of his 13 stops between the pipes to preserve the victory and send the tournament hosts on to Saturday's title bout.

"Gunnar's best half of the season came in the second half today," said Pressler. "He was lights out down the stretch when we were scrambling on defense.

"As I told the team, in tournament play it's about winning and advancing, and that's what we did today," he continued. "I don't think we were great today, but we played awfully hard, and we were terrific on the ground."

Sacred Heart outshot the Bulldogs, 34-31, on the day, but Bryant dominated the ground ball game, 42-20, picking up 15 in the third quarter alone. The home side did, however, struggle in the clearing game, going just 16-of-22, and committed 21 turnovers in Thursday's semifinal.

"Our biggest disappointments today were our inability to take care of the ball on offense and not hitting the goal when we had great opportunities," said Pressler, whose Bulldogs racked up just 14 shots on goal.

Now, the Black and Gold must move on from the victory and prepare for a quick turnaround to Saturday's Championship, where they will defend their tournament title against second-seeded Robert Morris at 1 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium. The Colonials topped third-seeded Quinnipiac, 15-14, in Thursday's second semifinal matchup.

"Today was a hard-fought game on the hottest day we've played this entire season," said Pressler. "For our team right now, it's about physical, mental and emotional recovery to get ready for a battle Saturday afternoon."

Saturday's NEC Championship can be seen live and free of charge at NECFrontRow.com.

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