NORTH ANDOVER — Talk to anyone inside the Merrimack men’s lacrosse program, and they’ll tell you that this feels like a team of destiny.
That’s not to suggest the Warriors take this Final Four appearance as a right. Far from it. They understand it’s a privilege that they now stand among the four best Division II lacrosse programs in the nation. That’s because they know how much work it took to get here. After suffering losses in the last two NCAA Tournaments, the Warriors want this tournament to end with a win.
(Ed. Note — This story will also appear in Saturday’s Eagle Tribune)
Saturday, Merrimack travels to Adelphi for the NCAA Semifinal. A win would put the Warriors in the national championship game, schedule for May 28 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.
It could be the defining moment for the program, and for this group of players, who have taken an already renowned program to new heights.
“When you’re so involved, all we see is conformity to our culture,” said head coach Mike Morgan. “Guys show up, they work hard, they’re talented. But as the year goes on, you know you have that so you stop really paying attention to it. Then late in the year, I think we realized we have something here, something that’s special. There were no games where we almost lost to a lesser opponent. There is almost always one or two of those. Then you look at the good teams, and we made some mistakes against Le Moyne and Adelphi, and we ended up losing some double-overtime games to a really good team (Le Moyne).
“Adelphi is the outlier. We got outworked, out-hustled, we weren’t sharp and we didn’t play as a group. We weren’t ready. They got on us immediately, and that’s the only game that we look at this year and say, ‘that’s not us.’ Now, here we are. There is a revenge factor. I can’t imagine we won’t get our best effort.”
Merrimack lost to Adelphi, 12-9, earlier this season. Revenge isn’t something foreign to this team, however.
Last week, Merrimack beat Le Moyne, 10-5, in the opening round. The Dolphins edged the Warriors in double overtime twice this season, including a regular-season game at Merrimack in April and then the NE10 semifinals just two weeks ago. The Warriors got the win when it mattered most, in the NCAA Tournament, and in the most convincing fashion of the three games the teams played this year.
“The team that showed up at Le Moyne last week is what I expected all year,” said Morgan. “There was one spurt where our offense reverted back a little bit, and we gave up some easy goals, but it was only about six minutes. It went from being up 4-0 to 4-3, and then we got right back on it and the result was in our favor. We limited mistakes. We won faceoffs and possessed them, we didn’t just turn it over. That’s what I hope to see more of this weekend.”
Edward Hellier, Merrimack’s first-year goalkeeper, has been stellar all season. Statistically one of the top goalies in the country, Hellier transferred from Goucher College in Maryland and wasn’t sure he’d get the chance to play at Merrimack. After getting himself a tryout, the Maine native impressed Morgan enough to make the team, but his role still wasn’t immediately defined.
The Warriors had lost All-American goalie Dom Madonna to Syracuse two years ago. That forced sophomore Sam Ventresca into the position earlier than he was probably ready for it, Morgan said.
“Sammy is a great kid, but he needed more time to develop behind Madonna,” he said. “Then Madonna is gone, and we’re scrambling. We had to do with what we had.”
Morgan said he gave Hellier a shot in a tryout simply because they needed a body at that position.
As it’s turned out, Hellier has been backstopping the Warriors, potentially, to heights never achieved before by this program.
“He’s amazing,” Morgan said. “He had a pretty good tryout. He wasn’t great, but he was good enough to play. His coach raved about him. I didn’t know what exactly his coach meant though, was he good enough to play? Or just a good kid to have on the roster? You look at him and you wouldn’t guess it. He’s so laid back and he’s not a big kid, but right now he’s one of the best in the country right.
“If he were any cooler he’d be asleep. That’s what you want in a goalie. He’s confident, but he’s so calm. It calms our team. There’s no panic in him. He’s an amazing story. He’s bought-in to the culture of our program. He was bought-in right away. He knew it was hard, he got into awesome shape, and he’s a huge part of why we are where we are.”
Where the Warriors are is one win away from a berth in the national championship game. Morgan said that Merrimack needs to handle the moment, and having a calming influence like Hellier manning their net will certainly help.
“We need to match their intensity to win the game,” said Morgan. “If we play fast and share shots, we’re a good offense. The biggest part is just handling the moment. It’s 60 minutes for a chance at a national championship.”
Game time is set for 1 p.m.
Matching Up Merrimack vs. Adelphi
4/1/17 – @ Adelphi – 12-9 Loss
5/6/16 – vs. Adelphi – 14-13 Win (3OT)
4/2/16 – vs. Adelphi – 18-14 Win
5/9/15 – @ Adelphi – 10-9 Win (NCAA QF)
5/1/15 – vs. Adelphi – 17-15 Loss (NE10 SF)
3/21/15 – @ Adelphi – 13-12 Win (OT)