May 7, 2014

Lambrecht: Drexel Finally Breaks Through NCAA Barrier

by Gary Lambrecht | | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

A diversified crew helped Drexel make the NCAA tournament, including face-off specialist Nick Saputo, who is winning over 63% at the X. (Kevin P. Tucker)

Video: CAA Finals highlights - Drexel vs. Hofstra

Drexel senior Ben McIntosh said he felt the Dragons were going to break through the school's NCAA tournament barrier after Drexel had won a huge game it deserved to lose.

Five minutes into the fourth quarter of last week's Colonial Athletic Conference tournament semifinal, Drexel trailed Towson, 9-6. The Dragons were staring at their fourth CAA tournament stumble in five years under head coach Brian Voelker. Drexel, which had never made the NCAAs since moving to Division I in 1974, was on the verge of missing yet another chance at securing an automatic qualifier.

But McIntosh refused to let it happen again. Twice, the Dragons' leading scorer found the back of the net to cut the lead to 9-8 with 3:35 left. Over the next 81 seconds, freshman Cole Shafer and McIntosh scored to give the Dragons a stunning, 10-9 lead, which Drexel promptly lost on a Towson goal with 1:20 left. Towson's Jack Adams then hit the crossbar as time expired in regulation.

Twenty-seven seconds into overtime, junior Ryan Belka scored to save Drexel's season.

"We sort of snuck through that [Towson] game," said McIntosh, who has a team-high 43 goals. "We've learned not to freak out in close games."

Fittingly, Drexel earned its first, NCAA tournament shot under similarly stressful circumstances two days later in the CAA title game. Against top-seeded Hofstra, Shafer put on the most important show of his promising career with five goals, the last of which knocked the Pride out of the NCAAs with Drexel's second, 11-10 victory of the tournament.

This time it took three overtime periods to decide the issue. This time, Drexel was down by three goals with five minutes left in regulation, before staging a rally even bigger than the Towson comeback.

"I'd like to make it a little easier," Voelker said. "We're one of those teams that keep the game close and make it exciting. We don't win many beauty contests. We've been right there so many times [in the past] and couldn't catch a break or make the breaks happen."

As it prepares for Sunday's first-round matchup against no. 4 seed and Ivy League champion Penn at Franklin Field – a "trip" that will require a 10-block, Philadelphia bus ride – the unseeded Dragons (12-4) are expecting another taut affair with the Quakers, who are hosting their first NCAA tournament game in 26 years.

Drexel might get out-played by Penn, but the Dragons will not be overwhelmed by any moments. That doesn't appear to be in the Drexel DNA this spring.

In the Dragons' arsenal is an unselfish group of proven scorers, a steady defense, a major weapon in faceoff specialist Nick Saputo (.632) and a belief that somehow, someone will make the necessary play.

"We've got dodgers, feeders, shooters, finishers," said senior attackman Nick Trizano, who has put 73 percent of his shots on goal while scoring 36 goals on 40 percent shooting. "Somebody is always stepping up."

At times, that has been Belka, an excellent creator off the dodge. At other times, it's been Shafer, an occasionally amazing shooter, or the clutch and versatile McIntosh.

The playoffs are built for tension. Drexel has thrived on the tightrope in 2014. The Dragons are 5-2 in one-goal games, 3-1 in overtime decisions. Three victories during their current, eight-game winning streak have required a combined seven extra periods.

Drexel has traveled a painful road to reach this point. Voelker still grimaces at the 10-5 team that lost in the CAA semifinals in 2010 and barely missed getting an at-large bid. Two years later, a loss to UMass in the CAA final denied the Dragons. Last year's 11-4 squad tripped against dark horse and eventual champion Towson in the CAA semis.

Finally, the Dragons are seated at the lacrosse party's main table, and Drexel could be another of those unseeded teams that have dented the NCAA bracket in recent years.

Under offensive coordinator Conor Ford, the Dragons rank 15th in scoring with 11.7 goals per game, and they do it with a pick-and-roll style that allows players a hefty amount of freelancing within the scheme. They will need to crack a stout Penn defense to put Drexel in the quarterfinals against the Denver-North Carolina winner.

Voelker is pretty certain the Dragons have retained their edge after finally extending their season deeper into May.

"People were asking me why I wasn't jumping up and down [after beating Hofstra to win the CAA]," he said. "Part of it was I'm mentally and physically tired. Part of it was I expected us to be here. I don't want our guys reading texts and tweets telling them how great they are this week. We can't be satisfied."

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