Once Raw on Defense, RIT Paved Path to 2nd Straight NCAA Title

PHOTO BY RICH BARNES


How does a program turn the page from the elation of a first national championship and start the quest for a second in a row?

For the RIT men’s lacrosse team the answer is easy — a delayed ring ceremony.

OK, maybe it’s not that simple. But a ring ceremony that was supposed to happen during alumni weekend in October didn’t actually take place until December and provided the natural bridge from one title run to the next.

“Just, mentally, I think it was some nice closure for them to leave the semester and regroup and come back and make sure we’re looking forward, not behind us,” RIT coach Jake Coon told USA Lacrosse Magazine.

Back on campus, the Tigers tried to do what only five other Division III programs have done — win back-to-back national titles. They achieved that goal, capping a 22-1 season with a 12-10 victory over Union as part of Championship Weekend at Rentschler Field. But the road to East Hartford wasn’t perfectly paved.

Coon was concerned on the defensive end, having graduated the entire starting close defense and goaltender. How raw the Tigers were on that side was evident in a preseason scrimmage against Yale.

“We kept getting beat on some picks behind the net, and Brett [Naylor] said afterward or even during the game, ‘Coach, I’ve never even played a pick behind the net.’ I didn’t realize how green we were until he made a comment like that.”

Zach Gagnon was the fourth close defenseman a year ago and made the seamless transition to leading that group as a captain. Goalie Drew Hutchinson spent four years biding his time as the No. 2 behind Walker Hare, but he shined in the spotlight, earning MVP honors in the national championship game.

Those were the known commodities defensively.

Naylor, who was an LSM in 2021, was a pleasant surprise for Coon with his on-ball defending and clearing ability in an unsung role for the Tigers, locking up some of the top lefty attackmen RIT faced.

Sophomore Michael Grace was an attackman the year before and became a converted defenseman.

“Michael Grace was an out-of-the-blue, absolute shock,” Coon said. “We had no idea he would even be in the mix, let alone having the year yet he ends up being an All-American. It’s amazing how fast he was able to pick things up.”







The pivotal point of the season came in early April. RIT suffered its first, and only, defeat of the regular season, 13-12, at then No. 18 RPI. The Tigers then lost senior Ben Rosenblum, one of the team’s top midfielders, to a broken foot the next day.

Then on Saturday, No. 8 Union was coming to RIT Turf Field during Alumni Weekend.

“Losing to them would have changed a lot, meaning we would not have been home, maybe have had to play at Union or it would have changed the tournament altogether, to be honest,” Coon said. “We knew the importance of that game, and we knew how good Union was.”

RIT won that game 14-13 and then the next 11 — including a 19-10 win over RPI in the Liberty League tournament — to get back to the national championship.

“It was a challenging week, and I think in a lot of ways our guys knew they needed to step up,” Coon said. “John Mozrall stepped into the first line, and Marley Angus stepped up his play at the midfield, and I think our defense knew they had to do their job. In a way, I think that week had a lot to do with us progressing forward and trying to find a new identity without Ryan, but also just to rebound from a loss that we felt we just didn't play our best.”

Rentschler Field was a familiar location, familiar surroundings, familiar stage with a familiar opponent in Union awaiting for the Division III national championship game.

Too familiar, Coon feared.

“I was a little concerned with our guys being too comfortable,” he said. “I don’t think our group was arrogant at all, but we were there last year and we were playing Union, who we played many times before. I was concerned with us being too comfortable at the field and with Union, even though our guys know how tough Union is.”

Perhaps Coon was right. The Tigers trailed 7-2 with 4:49 left in the second quarter — it was their largest deficit of the season.

RIT cut its deficit to 7-4 at halftime, outscored the Dutchmen 4-0 in the third quarter and senior midfielders Angus and Ryan Barnable scored back-to-back goals to open the fourth quarter as part of a game-changing 8-0 run.

“Marley played great this year, really stepped up as a dodger and as a leader, and Barnable has been doing it for years,” Coon said. “I think our defense stepped up when we needed them, certainly changing to zone helped us. Hutchie obviously stepped up throughout the course of the game.”

When the final horn blared, there was another feeling that was also familiar for Coon and his team. It wasn’t as dramatic as the double-overtime victory over Salisbury a year prior that clinched a first national title in program history, but it was just as sweet.

“Obviously last year, it was an incredible game, an unbelievable finish for us, tough to match that,” Coon said. “I felt it right away, and I think I have a good appreciation on what it takes to do that so right away I was as happy as could be, and I think the guys were as well.”

And now there’s more ring sizes to collect and an order to place. The ring ceremony is, again, scheduled for Alumni Weekend in late September. But with coaches being creatures of habit, Coon wouldn’t be too upset if another series of miscues delays it a few months later.

“That’s not the plan; it was not the plan last year either,” Coon said. “We’re hoping to get things finalized and set up for that weekend. But if not, and we can’t get it done by then, maybe December is the right move. I’m not scared of December anymore. I guess we’ll call it that way.”

Suggested

Most Recent

A Comeback for the Ages: An Oral History of North Carolina vs. Northwestern

This one had it all — a lightning delay, goalie redemption, an unlikely hero and more.

Why We Chose Cailin Bracken as the December 2022 Cover Star

Bracken's "A Letter to College Sports" helped kickstart mental health conversations.

Out of Darkness, a Light: Behind Cailin Bracken's Letter to College Sports

How Bracken became the voice of a mental health movement in college sports.

Behind the Whistle: We Are Grateful For ...

IWLCA member coaches share what they're thankful for ahead of Thanksgiving.







Twitter Posts