February 24, 2014

Stevenson-RIT: A Wild, 178-Second Ride

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

"Honestly, typically I wouldn't make that call, but Paul pulled one of those on us last year late in the fourth quarter." — RIT coach Jake Coon on calling for a stick check in overtime against Stevenson. (Greg Wall)

It started with a seemingly wasted timeout with 75 seconds left and ended with a deflected shot trickling into the net in overtime, turning a certain Stevenson victory Saturday into a miraculous RIT triumph under the dome in Syracuse.

Here's how it all went down:

With Stevenson holding a commanding, 14-11 lead and RIT in possession of the ball with 1:15 left in regulation, Tigers coach Jake Coon opted to burn his last timeout. It was an interesting occasion to use it, considering an uphill struggle awaited and it might have been better used to save a possession if, by some miracle, RIT got back into the game.

"I just wanted to get organized," Coon said. "We wanted a 10-man ride if they came up with the ball. We talked about our offensive sets and that they knew we didn't have any timeouts left. We set up our faceoff and I think that was about it. It was kind of blur for me, too. It all went by pretty quickly."

The play called in the huddle was for Taylor Wisman to feed Casey Jackson, the junior college transfer who had joined the Tigers over the winter break, for the shot. It worked, and Jackson buried his third goal of the game to trim the lead to 14-12 with 57 ticks left.

Coon then was faced with a decision. He had convinced himself that Stevenson's backup faceoff man, sophomore Justin Buonomo – a Rochester, N.Y., native – was using an illegal stick. Buonomo was giving the Tigers fits, winning 11 of the 15 faceoffs he took.

"Early in the game, their faceoff guy had a couple of plays that were questionable in my mind," Coon said. "The very first faceoff he took, he got the ball caught in the back of the stick and couldn't get it out. One time, he won the faceoff and ran through our entire defense and we couldn't dislodge the ball or stop him. And then another time he fell down and we had two guys checking his stick and the ball wasn't coming out. We kind of took note of it. My assistants were urging me to use it a little earlier, and I probably should have, in hindsight."

Coon didn't and it almost cost RIT dearly. Buonomo won the ensuing faceoff clean and sprinted toward the Tigers' net. He unleashed a shot that was ticketed for the goal, but goalie Pat Johnston stoned him and converted it into a clearing attempt.

"I give Pat Johnston, their goalie, a lot of credit," Stevenson coach Paul Cantabene said. "He made a lot of tough saves. We put a lot of heat on him."

"The kid went straight to the goal and Pat got a huge save," Coon said. "Like an 8-yard, doorstep save."

With the clock nearing 30 seconds left, RIT got the ball in the zone, but nearly lost it. There was a battle for a loose ball behind the Stevenson net that finally ended when RIT's Mac Keehfus scooped it. Keehfus fed the ball out front to Allister Warren, who scored. All of a sudden, it was a one-goal game, 14-13, with 28 seconds remaining.

Facing a make-or-break faceoff, Coon opted to keep the stick check in his back pocket and rolled the dice with Tyler Brooks-Lambert, who finished 10-for-25 on the day. He got one of those 10 at the most critical point, winning it clean and sparking a mini-break. Brooks-Lambert kicked the ball off to Warren with seven seconds left, but the shot was blocked. The game appeared over.

Warren, however, picked up the rebound, fed Jackson rolling the crease, and Jackson dove in front of the goal while slipping the ball past Dmitri Pecunes with less than one second remaining.

Just like that, the game was tied and headed for overtime.

"You take away the last 90 seconds [of regulation] and we played like the best team in the country," Cantabene said. "We did a good job of playing great team defense to stop their stuff, and I think we played well offensively. Overall, I thought we played well except for the last 90 seconds when we had a lot of things not go our way."

To start overtime, Cantabene trotted out his ace faceoff man, MLL draftee Brent Hiken, and the senior snatched up the draw, brought it into the offensive end and Stevenson called a timeout – the only one issued in overtime.

The moment had come for Coon to call for the stick check on Buonomo.

"You take away the last 90 seconds [of regulation] and we played like the best team in the country." — Stevenson coach Paul Cantabene (Greg Wall)

There's some history here. In last year's regular season game between the two teams in Owings Mills, Md. – another overtime classic – RIT tied it with 44 seconds left and Stevenson called a stick check on Wisman, the scorer, in hopes of getting the goal erased. It was a fruitless challenge, and the Mustangs ended up winning anyway, but it was something not soon forgotten on the Tigers' sidelines.

"Honestly, typically I wouldn't make that call, but Paul pulled one of those on us last year late in the fourth quarter," Coon said. "I guess that was what urged me to pull it out."

"Sometimes it happens, but it's not really common," Cantabene said. "Last year we had the same thing where the stick checks went back and forth."

When the officials tested Buonomo's hardware, it rolled cleanly out of the pocket the first two times, according to Cantabene, but the third time it got stuck and was deemed illegal. It warranted a three-minute unreleasable penalty, but more importantly, it flipped possession to RIT.

"He has to know not to have an illegal stick," said Cantabene, who inspected the stick after the game and found it to be legal. "That's on him and, as an offensive coaching staff, we have to talk to our kids about that. But those sticks get bent up in the faceoffs. It's unfortunate that it happened."

As is standard procedure, Stevenson reciprocated by calling a stick check on RIT. They selected midfielder Kyle Aquin's twig.

"They chose Kyle's and Kyle is by the book," Coon said. "We were very confident that he was going to have a legal stick. I was comfortable with anyone getting chosen there."

With RIT in possession and a man-up for the rest of the first overtime, Stevenson's fate appeared sealed. The Mustangs' defense, however, was not ready to concede anything. An RIT pass was knocked down – "It was a poor look by us; we kind of forced it in there," conceded Coon – and Chris Dashiell picked up the loose ball and went streaking down the near sidelines, staring down double teams the entire way.

And this is where it gets weird.

"The referee came right over to me – I didn't call for him or anything – and asked, 'Coach, do you want a timeout?' I told him, 'I don't think I have a timeout,'" Cantabene said. "He said, 'I'm pretty sure you do. Do you want it?' I said, 'If I have one, I'd love to take it.'"

"He blew the whistle," Cantabene continued. "The head referee said we turned the ball over. The other referee went over and said, 'No, I told him to take the timeout. It was my fault.' The head ref says, 'It doesn't matter. RIT ball.'"

"Lucky for us, really," said Coon of regaining possession.

With another bite at the apple, the Tigers finally ended it.

"The ball is in a scrum, their goalie comes out and there are a couple of defensemen there and there is a scrappy ground ball," Coon said. "The ball is swung around and it comes to Taylor Wisman and we're yelling at him to shoot the ball. He's looking to pass it to somebody and there is a wide-open net! So he runs in and takes a shot. But it still gets deflected by a defenseman, and the goalie might have even got a piece of it, too, but it trickled in. It just kind of summed up the whole day. We had to work for everything and we were fortunate it went in, to be honest with you."

On the losing side of the 15-14 final, there was frustration, but also a newfound spark.

"I actually think they are pretty motivated," Cantabene said of his players' mood. "They were pretty upset in the locker room, and there are a lot of guys waiting to get back at it. We think we have some unfinished business, so I think our guys are ready."

It's amazing how 178 seconds can alter the course of a game, and perhaps the rest of the season.

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