NORTH ANDOVER — Last year’s national championship game was a dream come true for Merrimack defenseman Ryan Burke. Born and raised in New Hampshire, he set foot on the same turf as Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium last May as Merrimack prepared to take on Limestone. Above his head were the same banners that Brady and Co. won. He was hoping his Warriors would add a banner to Merrimack’s North Andover campus.
Burke heard his name on the loudspeaker when starting lineups were announced, and he saw his face up on the big screen before trotting out on the field.
Then seconds later, the dream turned into a nightmare.
The Pinkerton Academy graduate hurt his knee on the game’s opening faceoff when someone fell on his leg in a scrum, and his day was over. Luckily he avoided a major injury, but he was handed crutches and was forced to watch as Merrimack’s halftime lead disappeared, and the Warriors fell two goals short of a title.
“It was one of the most heartbreaking things I can ever remember,” said Burke. “I couldn’t believe that was it. You want to go out there and help your team in any way that you can. To go through all the hype leading up to the game, and have it taken away that quickly was really hard.”
Burke said he appreciates the moment more now, as Merrimack takes on Saint Leo in the 2018 national title game on Sunday, back at Gillette Stadium. He hopes it’s a redemption story for himself, but also for his team.
A reservist in the U.S. Marine Corps., Burke was at boot camp last summer and into the fall. This opportunity, to get back to the national championship, was something that was never far from his mind.
“Through all the training, this was all I was thinking about,” he said. “I want this so bad. Then the playoffs came around, and I think you just learn to appreciate it so much more. Not everyone gets to play for a national championship. I wanted this so bad, and now after what happened last year, I appreciate this chance so much more. It’s been a crazy journey.”
Teammate Jack Trask has a similar story. A fifth-year senior from Colorado, Trask missed last year’s national championship game after tearing his hamstring in the offseason. That was after breaking his leg two years prior.
“I played my freshman year, then missed my sophomore year, played my junior year, and missed last season which should have been my true senior year,” Trask said. “It’s pretty crazy.”
The hamstring tear happened in the preseason, and Trask worked his way back through rehab to get game-ready for late in the season, but the injury never truly healed until this past summer
“I definitely should have had surgery,” he said. “We started with rehab and then about eight weeks later it wasn’t getting any better so we did an MRI and I tore about two-thirds of my hamstring. It was a little more nasty than we thought.”
Burke had the game stolen from him in the opening seconds, but Trask never had the chance to experience the bright lights of Gillette Stadium. That will change on Sunday against Saint Leo.
“I couldn’t be more excited to get a chance to contribute in this one,” Trask said. “It was a really long year last year sitting on the sidelines. I wanted another crack at winning a championship.”
Merrimack head coach Mike Morgan said that both Burke and Trask are a big part of the Merrimack lineup, and they were two huge pieces missing when Merrimack played Limestone last year.
“Jack just wasn’t healthy enough last year and he couldn’t help us in that game, and I know it killed him,” Morgan said. “Then you have Ryan who gets the game stolen from him on a freak play. … We could have used them both last year. That’s a different game if they were both in there. But they’re also the two most ultimate team guys. They care most about us, not themselves.”
Merrimack and Saint Leo will lock up at 4 p.m. Sunday.