MANSFIELD, Conn. – Senior attack Connor Wylie (Somers) scored twice in the final eight minutes – including what proved to be the game-winning goal with 1:25 left – to spark the second-seeded Eastern Connecticut State University men's lacrosse team to a 10-9 victory over No. 3 University of Southern Maine in the semifinals of the Little East Conference playoffs Thursday night at the Mansfield Outdoor Complex.
After surviving with a 17-14 victory over Southern Maine (8-9) in the first round of last year's LEC playoffs, Eastern (10-6) was in danger of its first loss to the Huskies Thursday night in the 20th installment of the series, but rallied from three goals down with 21 minutes left to advance to its 16th title game in the 18-year history of the championship. Southern Maine was appearing in the semifinals for only the second time, looking for its first championship game appearance.
In Saturday's 1 p.m. title game, the Warriors will visit four-time defending champion and No. 1 seed Keene State College, which dodged a landmine Thursday with a narrow 14-10 verdict over No. 4 Plymouth State University by scoring the final four goals over the last seven minutes to break a 10-10 tie.
Eastern and Keene will be meeting in the championship game for the 14th time, Eastern having won six times. The Warriors are the only ones to win the title game between the programs on the road, knocking off top-seeded Keene State in 2013. The title game berth will be Eastern's 16th in 18 seasons, the Warriors having won eight times.
Eastern tied the match against Southern Maine for the first time with 8:28 left when Wyllie slipped in a goal from the post to make it 8-8, and team scoring leader Harrison Urda (Milford, NH) capitalized on the team's only extra-man opportunity with six minutes left to push the Warriors into their first lead, 9-8. Urda led all players with six goals, giving him his first career 40-goal season.
Paul Leonardo's team-leading 30th goal on a pass from top assist man Nate DelGuidice with just under three minutes left evened the contest for USM, before Wyllie teammed with junior attack Samuel Watson (Trumbull) with 1:25 left for what proved to be the game-winner.
Eastern was hoping to stall the game away following Wyllie's go-ahead marker when freshman faceoff midfielder Connor Hillemier (Farmington) won his fourth faceoff in seven tries (collecting the ball himself), but the Warriors turned the ball over, then commited a pushing foul while trying to recover to give USM one last game-tying opportunity. Given possession at midfield following a timeout, USM got the ball to Leonardo stationed top left, but freshman long pole Ralph Criscuolo (Wallingford) reached out and deflected the shot to the turf before it reached cage, and Eastern freshman defenseman Tyler Koppy (Attleboro, MA) emerged from a crowd with the ball as time expired to secure the win.
Making his first LEC playoff start, sophomore goalie Taylor Huta (Waterford) made ten saves for his third win in four decisions this year, while USM's Zach Bessette stopped nine shots.
Hillemeir and sophomore faceoff midfielder Matt Robidoux (Cheshire) each picked up five ground balls and won 12 of 21 faceoff attempts. Southern Maine's Derek Davidson won half of his 16 faceoff attempts, picking up five ground balls. Robby Pini won seven ground balls for the Huskies, who had eliminated No. 6 seed UMass Dartmouth, 8-7, in Tuesday's first round at home.
Having now won at least ten matches for the 15th time in 18 years, the Warriors bring a season-high four-game win streak into Saturday's final. The Warriors concluded their home season with a 5-1 record, their only loss at the hands of Keene, 24-13, five weeks ago.