Ed. Note — This story will appear in Monday’s edition of The Eagle Tribune
NORTH ANDOVER — Mike Morgan can feel it.
His Warriors just beat Seton Hill on Sunday night at Martone-Mejail Field to earn their second straight trip to the NCAA Championship game next week at Gillette Stadium. The Warriors will enter the title game against Saint Leo looking to raise the trophy that eluded them last season, when Limestone tripped up the Warriors by two goals in the championship.
“They’re on a mission,” said the Merrimack head coach. “I can see it in their eyes. I’ve never coached a team like this before. I can tell when I talk to them and I can tell by the way they prepare. Coaches talk about that all the time, and it exists. I always thought it was just something coaches said, you always think your team is ready, but I look at this team and I think someone is going to have to take this from them. That’s a very powerful thing. This team does not want to let this thing go.”
Merrimack (17-1) beat the Griffins (17-2) 16-9 on Sunday. After falling behind 2-0 in the first quarter, the Warriors brought their game to another level and Seton Hill had little response. Every time the Griffs would score, and it looked like they might string together some momentum, Merrimack’s Blake Boudreau would win a faceoff and the Warriors would charge down field and score within 15 seconds; that exact scenario played out three separate times.
“He’s been incredible,” Morgan said about Boudreau. “He was 20 for 20 against the New York Tech kid who was put up for All American. Now he goes out there tonight against their kid who was fifth in the country? He’s great. But Blake was huge. If our defense gave one up, Blake would win a faceoff and we’d go down and score and that kept the lead at four or five. Blake caught fire. When you can keep the ball with our offense, there’s nothing like it. He scored on a big shot, too. That’s a really big shot.
“Once we got it to five or six with nine minutes left I knew we were in good shape, and it was just about taking care of the ball. When you’re winning faceoffs, that’s the biggest thing. Even if they score, you know you’re getting the ball back.”
Boudreau remembers last year well; everyone in the Merrimack locker room still feels the sting of the Limestone loss. That feeling has permeated throughout this season and it’s provided the fire in their eyes that Morgan said he’s seen all year.
“Everyone remembers what that felt like,” Boudreau said. “I think we’re all happy to get back there and have a chance to finish it off the way we want to.
“(The semifinal) was a lot of fun. Obviously to get that win, but it was really nice to get the win at home. It’s been a busy day with commencement and other stuff, but we capped it off in a big way. I’m from Amherst, N.H., so I had a lot of family and friends here, it was a special night. Now we need one more.”
Boudreau has solidified himself as one of the best players on the X in the nation. Matched up against Seton Hill’s Jay Scerbo, who was ranked fifth in the nation in percentage coming into the game, Boudreau won 17 of 28 faceoffs. Boudreau is ranked eighth in the country, and he’ll face a Saint Leo team in the final whose best faceoff player has a losing record and is ranked No. 50 in the country.
“I’ll watch a lot of tape on their guys looking for tendencies,” he said. “One of the things I’ll have to prepare for this week is I’ve heard they use a long stick on faceoffs sometimes, so I’ll watch a lot of video just on faceoffs to be ready.
“One area where I think I’m really strong is, even if I lose, I’m pretty athletic so I can get in there and scrum. Our wings also do a great job supporting every faceoff, so as a team, we always do well in those situations.”
Thus far in the NCAA Tournament, Merrimack has outscored its two opponents 40-15; Saint Leo has won a pair of 12-11 games and enters the title game with a 16-2 record.
“Seton Hill is very good, we knew that all week,” Morgan said. “To score 16 on them and hold them to nine, that means both sides of the ball were supporting each other. We had a ton of distractions this week with moving down (to Martone-Mejail Field due to graduation), graduation, so many things we had to deal with I think that adversity brought us together. The preparation was great. This is a special group. Those guys are so battled-tested now, they’re just tough guys.”
Merrimack will present a tough matchup for Saint Leo. In fact, Merrimack is one of the harder teams to match up against in the nation. The Warriors have legitimate size and some players with burning speed to go along with their skill. The Warriors are senior-heavy, but also have freshmen and sophomores contributing, especially on attack where every starter is an underclassman.
“It’s hard to match up with us because we have size and speed,” Morgan said. “We’ve modeled our recruits after Division I, and we’re bringing in Division I kids. We have the skill level, and now we have the size. We thought that we’d be able to match up with a bigger Seton Hill team that a lot of teams struggled with this year. Even our guys who aren’t big, they’re strong. Look at Blake, he’s a bull. As the game went on, you saw the work our guys put in to be in that condition.”
Merrimack has played in big games all year, and now comes the biggest. It won’t be a rematch against Limestone — the Saints missed the tournament altogether — but it is a chance for redemption on the same field where suffered heartbreak one year ago.
“These guys have been waiting for this all year,” said Morgan. “Now, more than ever.”