Facing Goliath RIT, Union Men's Lacrosse Focusing on the Moment

PHOTO BY STEVE SHERIDAN / UNION ATHLETICS

Kieran McGovern has been a central figure in Union's path to the national championship game.


Union coach Derek Witheford remembers a lot from the first time he faced RIT as a player with his alma mater.

It came in March 2008, just the third college game for the then-Union freshman defenseman who would go on to start all 63 games in his career. RIT was ranked; Union was not. The weather was bad. Really bad. A cold, driving rain persisted through the entire fourth quarter in Schenectady, N.Y., as Union scored five times to snap a tie at 3.

“We won,” Witheford recalled. And that is significant.

The 8-3 Union victory was the Dutchmen’s last win over RIT, whom Union plays for the Division III national championship 1 p.m. Sunday in East Hartford, Conn. The teams never faced each other again in Witheford’s Union playing career, but since resuming their series as Liberty League rivals, RIT has won 20 straight times, including a 14-13 win on April 9 despite Union holding them scoreless in the fourth quarter. Three man-up goals helped propel RIT to the win. The last four meetings have been decided by two goals or fewer, which is equal parts painful and encouraging for Union.

“They play a unique style,” Witheford said. “If you do certain things, they’re going to kill you if you try to sub off or you take penalties. It’s a unique style they play, but the more you play them and the more familiar you are with it, I think the better you do with them. We’re slowly getting used to it, but we still haven’t gotten over that hump, and it’s a big one. I hope the guys will be ready on Sunday.”

Witheford has been waiting for this moment as long as anyone. He returned to his alma mater two years after graduating to become an assistant coach in 2013. He took over as head coach after the 2019 season but saw promising teams in his first two seasons at the helm shortchanged by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and an eight-game league-only schedule in 2021 in which two losses to RIT and an upset by Ithaca cost the Dutchmen an NCAA berth.

That frustration served as motivation for Witheford and his players to come back better this spring. Their experience and leadership along with depth — nine players scored goals in the 11-8 win over York in the semifinals — have carried them to new heights following an upset loss to St. Lawrence in the Liberty League tournament semifinals. The Dutchmen bounced, advancing past the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time in program history.

“We were extremely proud of being the first Union team to get to the final four, and we only got to sit on that for 12 hours before we were up again,” captain Kieran McGovern said. “This week, we have the whole week to be the first Union team to be in the national championship. It’s going to be an amazing experience.”







McGovern leads Union midfielders in scoring in his fifth year. One of five boys whose father is former Princeton player Brian McGovern, Kieran McGovern spent his first two seasons playing alongside his older brother, Charlie. One of McGovern’s younger brothers, Liam, is a Union sophomore who has been injured all season but found ways to contribute, as he did in the stifling heat in Virginia during Union’s last two NCAA games.

“Every time I came off the field, he had an ice towel ready to put on my neck and Gatorade and water to give me,” McGovern said. “That goes to show our whole team is bought in.”

The McGoverns were one of three sets of brothers on the team last year. Charlie and some buddies drove down to Virginia to support the team and will be in East Hartford pulling hard for Union to raise the national title trophy and end years of frustration. Kieran McGovern was a high school senior committed to Union when he saw them fall to RIT in the NCAA second round, 10-9, in 2015.

“A kid on Union hit the pipe,” McGovern said. “That was my first time watching Union. So my first time watching Union, they lost in the NCAA playoffs, so I’ve been at it as long as I could remember. Charlie introduced me to Union, and RIT has always been one of Union’s greatest opponents. It’s only right that we’re seeing them in the national championship.”

RIT won by an average of nearly nine goals per game in the next six meetings after that NCAA game in 2015. Then came another 10-9 RIT win over Union in the third round of the 2019 NCAA tournament when this year’s seniors and fifth years were on the team.

“That was the first year that we realized we could play with anybody,” McGovern said. “And also, it was the first time we realized how competitive D-III lacrosse was at the highest level and how hard it actually is to make it to championship weekend and win a national championship.”

No Union athletics team has won an NCAA Division III championship, though the Union men’s ice hockey team won the Division I national title in 2014. Union’s lacrosse program is fast approaching its 100th anniversary. In their fourth season of existence in 1929, the Dutchmen went 7-0 and were voted USILA co-national champions along with Navy. Witheford would like nothing more than to see his Dutchmen end a streak, top rival RIT and make more history.

“It means the world,” he said. “These players have been working, some of them for four or five years, to get to this point, and now it’s here. Now, they just have to embrace this moment and limit distractions as best as possible and play better for 60 minutes. We don’t have to have the better team or better players; we just need to play best for 60 minutes. I’m excited for them to get that opportunity.”

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