Editor’s Note: Please welcome senior goalie and captain, Jake Springer of the Alabama Lacrosse team to MCLA Fan. He will be shedding some light on all things Tide Lacrosse throughout the season. Find out more on Alabama’s lacrosse program here and see of all Jake’s contributions here.
Alabama Experience: Put up or Shut up
I looked around in exasperation. How did we squander this lead? We’d led Auburn 9-5 with 7 minutes to go and had thoroughly outplayed them. Up 9-8 with only 1:14 left, all we needed to do was run out the clock. But we turned it over. Auburn got possession and drew a high-hit penalty with 40 seconds left. So there we were, now one-man down and clinging to a one-goal lead in the Iron Bowl.
Back in February, our team was surging. We had mowed down LSU 14-4, Kentucky 13-3, and had just taken down Tennessee in double overtime. At 3-0, we were confident heading into our first divisional game against Ole Miss. Regular LAS readers may recall my piece about my buddy Nick, the Ole Miss goalie, and I dueling it out that Sunday afternoon. We would eventually lose 8-7 in double overtime, our fourth overtime period of the weekend.
Being an older guy on the team, I knew that would be the turning point in our season. The only problem is it was the wrong kind of turning point for us. The following weekend, a couple of our best players didn’t make the trip with us to South Carolina. We were shorthanded on defense and missing a scoring threat on offense. Despite leading South Carolina at half time, we blew a second half lead and lost 12-8. The next day was equally as frustrating. Against West Virginia, we didn’t play our best but managed to carve out a 5-4 lead with 6 minutes left in the 4th quarter. We would blow that lead as well, and went on to lose 7-5.
From there, the slump worsened. 3 losses in a row turned to 4 when Georgia Tech downed us 12-5. Four losses turned into 5 and 6 when we were swept over Spring Break by USF and FSU. Nothing was going our way. One of our best defenders quit after the USF game. Two of our best midfielders sustained season ending head and shoulder injuries. There is a saying that, “Winning cures everything.” Unfortunately, the opposite is true, “Losing plagues everything.”
We returned from Spring Break with a lighter roster. 6 losses turned into 7 as Georgia, a team we’d nearly beaten last season, slaughtered us 17-5. Seven losses became 8 when Vanderbilt came to town. Despite a late rally that drew us within one goal, we fell short 9-6.
As a senior, it pained me to see our season fading like this. We were simply trying to do the best we could with who we had. Keep in mind, our previous head coach gave us his two-weeks-notice literally two weeks before this season.
All things considered, Coach Walker deserves a ton of credit for stepping in for us this year. All things considered, our entire team deserves a ton of credit for stepping up against Auburn.
From the opening whistle of Friday’s game, our offense dictated the tempo. It’s something we’ve been saying for weeks but finally began to execute against Auburn. Our offense enjoyed long, sustained possessions showing patience and precision in our settled sets. Sophomore attackman Tom Cheek (Baltimore, MD/ St. Paul’s) would draw first blood with an unassisted wrap-around 5 minutes in. The Tigers would respond with a five-hole bouncer to tie it at 1-1. Moments later, sophomore midfielder Joseph Bowker (Birmingham, AL/ Vestavia Hills) snuck a low-corner shot past the Auburn keeper to make it 2-1, Bama.
Auburn would start the second quarter with a number of quality scoring chances. Eventually, we went man-down and I would concede the second goal, a worm-burner from about 13 yards out to make it 2-2. After Craig Landru (Shelby Township, MI/ Eisenhower) won the faceoff for us, our offense sustained a patient possession for 3 minutes. Sophomore midfielder Jake Griffith (Atlanta, GA/ Riverwood) would capitalize and scored on an unassisted dodge from up top to seize the lead 3-2. Another faceoff win would give Bama possession again and lead to another Tide goal. Tom Cheek dodged on the left wing and found Chris Palasek (Rocky Point, NY/ Rocky Point) for a quick-stick goal to extend the lead to 4-2 Alabama.
Minutes later, Auburn goalie Judson Koss (Fairfield, CT/ Fairfield-Ludlowe) secured a critical groundball behind the net, started the fast-break, and the Tigers’ Chris Katz (Alpharetta, GA/ Alpharetta) buried an off-hip shot past me to make it 4-3. After a couple scoreless minutes, sophomore midfielder Andrew Feeney (Old Greenwich, CT/ Greenwich) found Griffith for a hands-free rip from 7 yards out to put the Tide ahead 5-3 going into halftime.
Minutes into the 3rd quarter, a scrum at midfield created an unsettled situation for us on offense. Andrew Feeney would capitalize yet again, finding freshman attackman Scott Vogelsang (North Brunswick, NJ/ North Brunswick) for the quick goal on the crease to make it 6-3. A slashing penalty left us in a man-down situation again, and Auburn would convert with a quick-stick goal to make it 6-4. Not to be outdone, we would go man-up moments later and junior captain Chris Palasek delivered in a big way. After working the ball around twice, junior midfielder Hill Williams (Birmingham, AL/ Homewood) made the quick feed to Palasek who buried a behind-the-back goal to make it 7-4 Bama. After an unassisted Auburn goal, the score was 7-5 Bama heading into the fourth quarter.
The cliché holds true: sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. 3 minutes into the fourth quarter, an Auburn player hit me in the hip with a shot and the rebound caromed out in front of the crease. After 30 seconds of mayhem, the ball squirted out to the left alley where Andrew Feeney picked it up and launched the ball 80 yards downfield. Chris Palasek (a 6’6” giant of an attackman) caught the clear off the bounce and snuck it past Koss before he could know what happened.
Our 8-5 lead began to affect Auburn’s offensive mentality in the fourth. Sensing their deficit was growing, a number of hasty possessions and a multitude of shots peppered me throughout the fourth quarter. Fortunately, I made nearly half of my 18 saves in the fourth quarter and was seeing the ball very well. On the seventh one in particular, an unsettled situation led to a 6-on-4 Auburn fast break. I made the high to high save and found defenseman Matt Leitner (Annapolis, MD/ Marriotts Ridge) with a lob pass over the Auburn middies to start the counter-attack, where Leitner fed Vogelsang for the goal to make it 9-5.
With 7 minutes left it seemed all but over. Having lost 8 in a row, our team was beside themselves on the sideline. But Auburn wasn’t finished yet. They clawed their way back with a man-up goal to cut it to 9-6 with 5 minutes left. The Tigers would beat me five-hole again with 3 minutes remaining, and then added another with 1:20 left to make it 9-8. Then came the penalty. As a Tiger attackman rounded the crease with 40 seconds left, Colin Kruger (Orlando, FL/ First Academy) lowered his shoulder and leveled the Auburn ballcarrier on the slide.
I addressed each defender individually. “It’s time to put up or shut up.” I acknowledged Chris Palasek, who ran to midfield and shouted, “One more stop!” Despite the 3 goals we’d given up in the minutes preceding this penalty, every one of my defenders seemed noticeably calm. It’s the kind of poise we’d been missing all season.
We would get Chris the stop he wanted. Auburn panicked under our defensive pressure and never managed a shot on goal. The clock expired on the game, our season, and my career.
Ending our season man-down against our archrival, up one goal with one minute to go is about as nerve-racking as it gets. But as a lacrosse player, you live for those moments, and find solace in the post-game celebration with the teammates who got you there.