Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Postgame Blog: Hot Start, Solid Finish Carry Grafton Past Nipmuc

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Grafton opened Tuesday's game at league rival Nipmuc like a team looking for redemption.

After a double-overtime loss to the Warriors earlier this season, Grafton came out with great energy, building a 7-0 lead over the first quarter-plus, en route to a 13-8 victory that handed Nipmuc its first loss of the season.

Grafton (12-2, 8-1 Mid-Mass.) also outscored Nipmuc (9-1, 5-1 Mid-Mass.) 3-1 in the fourth quarter, to stave off a would-be comeback by the Warriors, who went on a 10-3 run in the middle of the game. Each team showed toughness, both mental and physical, in a rough and tumble game where hits were many and flags were, perhaps, too few. But, in the end, it was Grafton who started faster and ended stronger.

"I honestly thought we played almost flawless in the first half," Grafton coach Alan Rotatori said. "To be honest, they didn't come out very strong. They were a little bit flat… But we knew that wasn't going to hold up for the whole game."

"We gave them the first quarter, dug ourselves into a six-goal hole, and (Grafton) is a tough team to dig out of that against," Nipmuc coach Eric Brockett said. "I thought we did a nice job after that. We were back in it going into the fourth quarter, but then we just fell apart in the fourth. We were clawing our way back, but it was too little, too late."

Here are a few other takeaways-

Two Fantastic Goalies

While Nipmuc did allow 13 goals, they were able to hang around, thanks in large part to junior goalie Alex Chu, who stood on his head and made 17 saves. Not only did Chu keep out soft goals, he absolutely robbed Grafton on four separate occasions, twice at point blank range. The steady junior was also largely efficient on the clear, at least once Nipmuc woke up in the mid-second quarter.

Not to be outdone, Grafton junior goalie Matt Nicalek turned away 11 shots, including a kick save in the early fourth quarter that prevented Nipmuc from making it a two-goal game. Normally, I wouldn't be talking about goalies in a game where 21 goals were scored, but man did both of these kids make some great stops.

Considering they both have good poles in front of them, this was an unusually busy day for these two juniors, but they were each up for the challenge.

Grafton's Many Weapons

Junior attackmen Tyler Hart and Steve Rotatori each netted a pair in the first quarter to help Grafton build a 6-0 lead heading into the first break. During the middle portion of the game, it was senior midfielder Anthony D'Angelo who stepped up, registering a hat trick to help keep Grafton ahead as Nipmuc slowly pushed its way back into the game.

Late in the game, it was freshman attackman Jack Gurney who closed the door on the Warriors. With Grafton leading 10-7, Gurney fought his way in for a goal, then dished out a sweet assist from behind the cage to Brendan Coates to put things on ice. The frosh finished with a hat trick, tying him for the team lead with D'Angelo.

No matter who was doing the scoring, it was a simple, no-nonsense offensive approach from the Indians.

"The last game (against Nipmuc), we had a lot of offensive turnovers. Just dumb plays and stuff like that," Steve Rotatori said. "So we decided to keep the ball rolling and make smart plays. It's hard to dodge on this field (wet, natural grass), it's very slippery, so we had north-south dodging only. We practiced a lot on our man-ups, and that helped too."

Richards Shows Out for Nipmuc

When Nipmuc was sitting in a 7-0 hole, the Warriors knew they needed a spark. Luckily, they got one, in the form of senior middie Ryan Richards. As soon as Richards rocketed in Nipmuc's first goal from the outside, you could see the Warrior sideline come alive, and even a Grafton player could be heard jogging off the field admitting "nothing you can do about that shot."

Richards wasn't done either, as he bombed in another one shortly after the half to make it a three-goal game. Showing off some great balance and power attacking the cage to go with his outside shot, it's easy to see why Richards has become one of the most feared offensive players in the region. His third goal, which came just before the final horn on a man-up play for the Warriors, completed his hat trick, and was a microcosm for a Nipmuc team that never stopped playing.

Looking Ahead

With the win, Grafton has positioned itself to again grab at least a share of the Mid-Mass. crown. The Indians only have three league games remaining, two of them coming against the newly-formed varsity team at Auburn, and Northbrige, teams who have combined to win one game in the league, and three games overall. The third comes against upstart Hopedale, who has been a great story, but is also a team Grafton defeated 13-5 just a few weeks ago. So, on paper, it would appear that Grafton will continue its stranglehold on the league.

But the Indians, as always, have larger ambitions. Positioning for the Division 3 Central/West tournament is now at stake, and Grafton has the chance to pick up some big wins in the coming weeks, most notably against Division 2 foes Westboro, Algonquin and Wachusett. If Grafton can run the table, it will be hard to deny the Indians the top seed, considering their strength of schedule compared to all the teams in Western Mass, plus their split with Nipmuc, victory over St. John's, and only other loss coming against Eastern Mass power Cohasset.

"We're just gonna keep doing what we're doing," Steve Rotatori said. "We have to get out on the field every day and have really good practices. That's our key to success."

On the other side, Nipmuc must now rebound from its first defeat of the season. It's pretty hard to believe that this program wasn't even in the tournament two seasons ago, but now the Warriors are fighting for a Top-3 seed in D3 Central/West, and can share the Mid-Mass. title with Grafton, if they win out in the league.

Nipmuc's Mid-Mass. path is significantly tougher than Grafton's, however, as the Warriors still have two games against Hopedale, a trip to Tantasqua, and a home game against Worcester, to go with a home game against Northbridge and trip to Auburn. But, first things first, Nipmuc needs to get back in the win column, and the Warriors can do that Thursday against next door neighbor Blackstone Valley Tech team.

But, even with a share of Mid-Mass. well within his team's grasp, coach Brockett made it very clear that his team's true proving ground will be the tournament.

"The goals haven't changed. We want the district," Brockett said of his team's ambitions to win Division 3 Central/West come tournament time. "As far as I'm concerned, (D3 Central/West) will come down to us and Grafton, so we've got to be ready for them again… I don't even care about the league, honestly, I want the district."

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