NORTH ANDOVER — Peter Brown sat in the stands last year at Gillette Stadium. A high school senior committed to Merrimack to play lacrosse, he watched his future team fall short against Limestone in the national championship game.
Sunday, Brown will be on the field for the Warriors, starting the biggest game in program history, and the biggest game of his life, as the Warriors set their eyes once again on that national championship trophy.
“It’s going to be really cool for me, going from the stands to being on the field,” Brown said. “Even though I wasn’t on the team last year, I still remember that disappointment … everyone here does.”
Brown is one of three freshman who have carved out starting roles on a Merrimack team that didn’t lose many starters from roster that finished No. 2 in the nation last season. Brown is the last line of defense, while Sean Black — he leads the Warriors in scoring — and Christian Thomas have helped pace the attack alongside superstar sophomore Charlie Bertrand.
“We’re not exactly rebuilding,” said Merrimack head coach Mike Morgan. “To have three freshman who can come in, on a team like this, and contribute right away is really impressive. They’re not coming into a team that was 6-8 last year, we were two goals away from being national champions and these three guys showed up and earned their spots.”
The trio are freshmen only in name at this point. Black and Thomas have started all 18 games for Merrimack this season and Brown has been in net for 16 of the 18.
“They don’t play like freshmen at all,” said Morgan. “They play well in really tough spots. They’re mature. They’re confident to the point where they expect to play well.”
“When I came in, I expected to just do whatever was asked of me,” added Black. “Anything I could do to get on the field, I’d be happy with. They had me starting a little bit in the fall in practice and then we got to the games and I kept starting, so I was really excited about that. I just tried to work hard in practice and it paid off.”
This isn’t the first time Merrimack has had a stud freshman garner national attention. Last year, Charlie Bertrand was one of the top players in all of Division II, despite being a rookie.
“I lean on him a lot,” Black said. “I ask him a lot of stuff. He’s a great guy to go to.”
A program like Merrimack, traditionally recruiting top players locally and in hotspots around the nation, generally will see freshmen make an immediate impact. It happened just last season with Bertrand, who was recruited out of the Syracuse, N.Y. region. But having three freshmen take on prominent roles is something Morgan hasn’t experienced since his early days with the program.
“It probably hasn’t happened like this since I first got here and we were really overhauling everything,” Morgan said. “We had some good players here then, but if we brought in 12 new guys, four or five of them would have been better than the guys who were already here, so you would see them start right away. It’s way more impressive now, because like I said, they’re not coming into a rebuilding team. To have these guys come in and contribute to a team going to the national championship game is pretty incredible.”
Black and Brown have played together for several years, including playing on the same club team (Connecticut Cardinals) and the same high school.
“I’ve known Sean since probably third grade,” Brown said.
There are plenty of Connecticut connections this weekend. Wesleyan is in the Division III national title game and head coach John Raba coached Black and Brown in their club days. Yale is in the Division I Final Four, and Merrimack scrimmaged the Bulldogs prior to the start of the season and kept it close, falling 13-8, in a game where the starts played each other for four quarters.
“That’s when I knew we were going to really have a shot at it,” Morgan said. “To play a team like Yale, I mean they’re in the Final Four, and keep it a game like that for four quarters when it’s their starters against our starters, that was huge. We played Sean and Christian in that game too, and when I saw freshmen like that perform against a team like Yale and not be fazed by the moment, I knew they were going to be good.”
Added Black, “If you can play with Yale, you can play with anybody, so that was huge for my confidence.”
It also shows that these rookies have played well in big games. Morgan said that some of their biggest performances have come in the NE10 and NCAA Tournament games, as well as big regular-season games against Le Moyne and Adelphi.
“It takes a certain kid who can come onto this team and be successful with so many of the guys we had returning,” Morgan said. “Their biggest games are against the biggest teams. They haven’t fattened up against the bottom teams in our league. They’re averaging six or seven points per game in the biggest games we’ve had this year.”