SMITHFIELD, R.I. – Behind a heroic 14-save performance from sophomore goalie Gunnar Waldt (Freeland, Md.), the No. 19/16 Bryant University men's lacrosse team made history Wednesday afternoon, earning its first-ever NCAA tournament victory with a 9-8 topping of Siena College at Bulldog Stadium.
With the win, the Bulldogs (15-4) advance to the NCAA tournament First Round, where they will meet second-seeded Syracuse University for the second-straight season at the Carrier Dome Sunday at 7:30 p.m. live on ESPNU. Wednesday's victory in the NCAA play-in game also set a program record for wins in a season (15).
"This is a monumental day not only for Bryant lacrosse, but for Bryant University," said head coach Mike Pressler. "It's another first for our team, and I am so proud of our players, especially our senior class."
That senior class scored four of Bryant's nine tallies and totaled seven points, including the feed from senior captain JK Poirier (Coatesville, Pa.) on the game winner from sophomore attack Shane Morrell (Glen Mills, Pa.) with 5:11 to play in the fourth quarter that would give the Bulldogs the 9-7 advantage.
Jordan Barlow closed the game to one goal with 2:47 to play with his second of the day, but Waldt came up with key stops to keep the Saints (11-6) out of the cage in the final minutes to secure the one-goal victory.
"He is the First Team All-American in my book," Pressler said of his netminder. "He is the best goalie in college lacrosse."
Senior midfielder Colin Dunster (Cos Cob, Conn.) netted the first goal of the game on Bryant's first offensive possession of the day, but Siena dominated the first quarter, owning a 3-1 margin after the opening 13 minutes.
Senior midfielder Alex Zomerfeld (Port Jefferson, N.Y.) closed the gap to one, 3-2, with 1:51 left in the frame, and each team would get on the board just once in the second for a 4-3 halftime score that favored the visiting Saints.
But 90 seconds in the third – after killing off the remaining 1:51 of a Matt MacGrotty (Westminster, British Columbia) penalty that ended the second quarter – NEC Rookie of the Year Tucker James (Essex Fells, N.J.) tied the score at 4-4 with a man-up goal on the team's only extra-man opportunity of the day. The score jumpstarted a three-goal Bulldog run that would put the hosts in the lead for the first time in the contest.
With 9:25 to play in the third, senior attack Dan Sipperly (Greenwich, N.Y.) fed the ball to a waiting Morrell right on the crease for a one-timer that handed the Black and Gold the 5-4 edge. Less than five minutes later, Sipperly himself would put the Bulldogs up by two, taking a pass from Zomerfeld and firing a bounce shot that eluded Siena goalie Tommy Cordts (11 saves) for the 6-4 lead with less than five to go in the stanza.
"The play of the game was the third-quarter man-down stop," said Pressler. "Then we went down to score the next three goals to make it 6-4. That really turned the game in our favor, that momentum burst in the third quarter."
The Saints struck again with 2:17 remaining, scoring on their fourth and final man-up chance of the afternoon off the stick of Kyle Curry to send the game into the fourth with just a single tally separating the teams.
James renewed Bryant's two-goal edge, 7-5, just more than two minutes in off a feed from sophomore midfielder Collins Gantz (Denver, Colo.), but Siena responded quickly, as leading scorer Richie Hurley (4 assists) dished out a pair of helpers for consecutive goals from Conor Prunty and Kevin Cousin just a minute apart to reknot the score at 7-7 with 10:40 left in regulation.
It would take another five minutes, but James would connect with Dunster for the 8-7 lead with 5:30 showing on the clock. And after a nearly 30-second struggle at the X on the ensuing faceoff, Poirier would pick up the ground ball and feed a quick pass to Morrell, who scored from five yards out for the eventual game winner with 5:11 to play.
Siena junior specialist Casey Dowd controlled much of the faceoff play through the opening three quarters, giving junior All-American faceoff specialist Kevin Massa (Huntington, N.Y.) his toughest matchup of the season. But Massa would excel when the Bulldogs needed him most, winning 6-of-7 at the X in the fourth quarter to give the Black and Gold the push they needed for the 9-8 win and to advance into the field of 16. Dowd and Massa each won 10 on the day, with Massa edging his opponent in the ground ball game, 8-7.
"Their guy is really good," Pressler said of Dowd. "Kevin didn't have his best stuff today, but when we needed him the most, No. 41 rose to the occasion."
The Bulldogs will now look to Sunday night's rematch against No. 2 Syracuse, the same team the Bryant saw in the NCAA tournament a year ago in a 12-7 decision, and will do so on short rest thanks to Wednesday's play-in game.
"First and foremost, we are going to enjoy this one tonight," said Pressler. "If you go back to a year ago, for three quarters, it was very much an even game. We are going to fall back on that experience at the Carrier Dome and rely on that Sunday at 7:30 p.m."
Sunday's game is the last of the NCAA tournament First Round matchups and can be seen live on ESPNU at 7:30 p.m.