October 31, 2013

Warriors Create New Tradition With LEC Title

KEENE, N.H. –  In the previous  ten seasons prior to 2013, Eastern Connecticut State University and Keene State College had squared off in the championship game of the Little East Conference playoffs nine times. Each time, the top-seeded team (and host) came out on top.

At right: Mike Devine was able to find the seam in the Keene defense Sunday

That all changed Sunday, when second-seeded Eastern men erased an early three-goal deficit, getting consecutive goals a minute apart from junior All-America and playoff MVP Mike Devine (Cheshire) inside the final six minutes, to upend No. 1 seed Keene State, 9-8, at the Owl Athletic Complex.

Keene's (14-3) one-goal victory over Eastern (10-7)  in the LEC regular-season opener for both schools a month ago tomorrow provided the Owls with the coveted home field advantage, but the Warriors  instead won their seventh straight game after a 3-7 start, stopping Keene's eight-game victory skein and handing the Owls their first loss to a conference opponent in nine games this year.

The Eastern men will compete in their 11th post-season tournament as the conference's automatic representative to the NCAA tournament, which gets underway Wednesday. It will be the Warriors' eighth appearance in the NCAA tourney,  third in sixth years under head coach Justin Axel.

The title is the second straight and eighth overall, and follows by a mere two hours the fifth-seeded Eastern's women's 10-7 upset at second-seeded University of Southern Maine in that lacrosse championship final.  Although the Eastern men and women have combined for 12 LEC championships, this season marks the first time that they have accomplished it in the same season. It is the tenth time in 13 years that either the Eastern women or men have attained the LEC playoff championship.

A marked man this year by opponents, Devine had struggled at times this year coming off his All-America sophomore season, and was limited to just one goal (albeit an important one) as the Warriors trailed by a goal heading into the final minutes of regulation.  After Keene scored consecutive goals by freshman attack Tyler McKelvie and sophomore midfielder JT Galloway ten seconds apart to took over the lead with 12 minutes left, Devine unleashed consecutive unassisted scoring strikes one minute apart to decide the outcome.

Freshman goalie Blake Smaldone (Hamilton) posted his second LEC playoff win in three days, making a14 stops, and the Warriors' man-down unit did its part by killing off all six of the hosts' extra-man opportunities.

Although the Warriors trailed early by three goals, they answered with four straight – one each by junior attack and leading scorer Mike Jordan (Cheshire), Devine, freshman midfielder Ryan Scott (Norwalk), and junior Tyler Fresen (Newington) – and never trailed again until McKelvie and Galloway scored ten seconds apart.

Three times in the second half, Keene answered Eastern's go-ahead goal with the tying one.

Although every Eastern-Keene championship match has been hotly-contested since 2004 (five previous ones decided by four goals or less), this year's was the first to be determined by one goal.