The Vets and Toll Gate boys’ lacrosse teams are in very different spots at this point in the season, but nobody seemed to alter either side of the gap in Tuesday’s game.
With the ’Canes in second place in Division III and the Titans battling for a playoff spot in ninth place, what looked like a lopsided game on paper turned into a dogfight from start to finish.
Vets eventually pulled out a 10-6 victory with two late goals to secure the win. But it was tense and tight, despite the final score.
“Any game against Toll Gate, you know it’s a rival, you know it’s a game and you know you’ve got to work for it,” Vets senior captain Will Hay said. “In this game, we had to work for it.”
Playing in a game with all the proceeds going to the HEADstrong Foundation, which support blood cancer research, the two teams wore lime green on their shoes, sticks and socks, which is the staple color of the foundation. There were also green flags for the refs, and the game was played with a green ball.
It added a new layer to what is already an intense rivalry between the two teams. They played like it.
“That’s been the history of this game,” Vets head coach Fred Schweizer said. “My first year, we didn’t win a single game, but we went right down to the wire with Toll Gate. Same thing this year – records don’t matter, because it’s such a great rivalry.”
Cody Sullivan led the way with four goals for the ’Canes, while Will Hay added three and Nate Brotman added two, as the team improved to 8-1 overall. It trails only 9-0 Smithfield in the division. The eight regular season wins set a new program-record, as Vets’ previous high was seven in 2011.
“The whole mentality is different this year,” Schweizer said. “They do believe, and I’ve been trying to stress that.”
Toll Gate, which got three goals from Derryck Anderson, fell to 3-6, and is tied with Burrillville/North Smithfield just outside the top-eight, which is how many teams qualify for the playoffs.
The Titans have never missed the playoffs in the nine-year history of the program.
“We have a little bit of work to do,” Toll Gate head coach Mike Vadney said. “We are now a little bit behind the 8-ball. I said we have to win out the season, and it’s got to start with Vets. We were close.”
The ’Canes controlled the early going, and eventually broke through 4:31 into the game with Hay firing a shot low, past Toll Gate goalie John Coleman for a 1-0 lead.
In what would become a trend, the Titans came right back, as Anderson buried a long-range shot from the left point to tie the score two minutes later.
The score remained that way until there were 41 seconds left in the quarter, when Hay found Brotman alone in front, and he evaded Coleman to give Vets a 2-1 lead.
“Vets played very well,” Vadney said. “They’ve got some really talented lacrosse players. It was a game that we were up for, they were up for and both teams put on a good performance today.”
The ’Canes started to get hot early in the second quarter and threatened to pull away, as Sullivan scored just 20 seconds into the period and Hay buried his second goal on a long range shot from the left with 10 minutes to go in the half, for a 4-1 lead.
Yet Toll Gate rallied. Playing a man-up following a Vets penalty, the Titans cut the deficit to two goals with two minutes left in the quarter, as Anderson came from behind the net and fell backwards in front, scoring in the process past Vets goalie Kyle Corvese.
“Every game we go into, it can’t just be an automatic win,” Hay said. “We’ve got to work at it.”
With 30 seconds to play in the half, the Titans narrowed the gap even more, as Anderson found a cutting Anthony Zelano in front near the crease, and he caught the ball and shot it in one motion, making it 4-3 at the half.
Offensive production has been a problem all season for Toll Gate, but it showed signs of breaking out at different points throughout the game.
“I saw moments of brilliance out of them where that was the offense we were looking for,” Vadney said. “And then it was a dropped pass, and it’s like, ‘Almost. Almost.’ It’s been a frustrating season as far as generating offense, and you can see them almost get it.”
Four minutes into the second half, Vets again grabbed a two-goal lead when Sullivan scooped up a groundball near midfield, raced to the goal and beat Coleman short side on the right.
Then it was Toll Gate’s turn, as Jesse Butler scored on Corvese from very close on the left halfway through the quarter.
But on the ensuing draw, Hay made what may have been the biggest play of the game. With the Titans trailing by just a single goal, Hay won the faceoff, went straight down the field and fired a shot past Coleman for a goal just 10 eight seconds after Butler’s goal. That made the score 6-4, Vets.
“He is a passionate player,” Schweizer said. “He loves the game. He loves everything about it and he will go hard until the end. That’s a senior captain leader who stepped up. We needed that, and it doesn’t surprise me at all because that’s who he is.”
Fired up from Hay’s goal, Vets grabbed another one before the end of the quarter when Sullivan stole the all and scored unassisted to make it 7-4 with 12 minutes to go.
Brotman scored quickly in the fourth to give Vets a four-goal lead at 8-4 before Toll Gate mounted its final charge. Brendan Murray found a cutting Steve Mathews for a goal with nine minutes to play to cut it to 8-5, and with 4:46 to play Anderson scored again to make it 8-6.
Luckily for Vets, Corvese made some key saves over the next two minutes, and the ’Canes went a man-up with 2:28 left and got a goal from Sullivan with 2:23 to play to make it 9-6.
As time ticked away, Mickenzey Pacheco added the finishing touches, scoring from the right to provide the final margin.
“Last year we had a lot of close games like that where we thought we had it and we were walking away with it and we were up a bunch and the next thing you know, bam, they would catch us and we’d lose in overtime,” Hay said. “We can’t let up.”
Now Vets will try to do something no one has been able to do for the better part of three years – knock off Smithfield. The ’Canes host the first-place Sentinels on Friday at 4 p.m. in a battle for first place. Smithfield hasn’t lost a game since 2010, and has won the last two Division III titles.
“I tell these guys, one game at a time,” Schweizer said. “So the next focus is Smithfield. They haven’t lost a game, this is their third year. But it doesn’t matter. These guys, if they’re on top of the game, and they’re focused, we can play with anybody. Absolutely. I have no doubt.”
It doesn’t get much easier after that, as the ’Canes will host 8-2 Lincoln on Tuesday and then travel to 6-3 Cranston West to end their season next Friday.
The Titans, on the other hand, will be scrambling to try to get into the postseason. They host 6-3 Tiverton/Rogers today at 3:30 p.m. before closing with two very winnable games – at 3-5 Scituate on Tuesday and against 2-7 East Providence next Friday.
“We’ve got a chance to win out the season, and we almost have to,” Vadney said.