Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Postgame Blog & Video: Grafton Earns Redemption in 3OT Semifinal Win Against Dover-Sherborn

Grafton's Brendan Coates throws home the game-winner in triple-overtime. Photo by Ryan Bowman
By Connor Evans (@RonnocEvans)

CONCORD - I would like to open this article with a disclaimer: I am still relatively new to reporting on high school sports. While I have the utmost respect for both of these teams, it IS worth noting that I did play for Grafton High School for four years. Some players from this game were my teammates.

I just want it to be clear that if I come across as biased tonight, it is in NO way intended to disrespect the achievements of a great Dover-Sherborn team. It is simply that Grafton Lacrosse raised me and I do hold a lot of love for them. That being said, let’s get to it.

In my short 20 years of life I have never witnessed a more enthralling, captivating, riveting, phenomenal sporting event than what I witnessed tonight. The D3 Central/West champion Grafton Indians ventured to Concord-Carlisle to face off against the two-time defending D3 state champions Dover-Sherborn Raiders.

It was a game that neither team would lead by more than one goal, and a game that featured four lead changes and three overtimes. A game where both teams played outstanding lacrosse in all facets. Goalies stood on their heads. Poles forced turnovers. Middies and attackmen found the cage. 60 full minutes of two absolute powerhouses exchanging blow for blow.

At the end of the third overtime, the underdog Indians would finally get the better of the Raiders, who had pummeled them the last two years in the state championship game. On the back of a golden goal from Brendan Coates, Grafton is headed back to BU for a third straight year, but no longer has to worry about the powerhouse Raiders.

Final: 7-6


The atmosphere was electric from the start. As the sun dipped lower in the sky and the lights lit up, you could tell it would be a classic.

Dover Sherborn would open the game with the first score. Jack Dillon found his way to the cage giving the Raiders their first lead of the night.

A few minutes later, Grafton found their first score from a fired-up Ryan Tyldesley. This momentum was certainly something the Indians never had in their first two meetings with D-S. After tying it up, All-American Anthony D’Angelo found Tyler Hart to actually give Grafton their first lead ever over the Raiders.

After D-S goalie Ross Bernard and Grafton goalie Matt Nicalek traded a few crazy saves, Sherborn would earn a man-up opportunity. Jack Dillon would find his second goal for the Raiders, tying the game up with 6:02 left in the half.

Coming back the other way, freshman Jack Gurney would hit Anthony D’Angelo, would fire a rocket, low-to-high to set a lead for the Indians once again.

Shortly afterward, Grafton would find themselves two men down and All-American Bailey Laidman would make them pay. He fired a missile past Nicalek to tie up the game, yet again.

With 1:00 left, Grafton would go man up, but an incredible effort by the Sherborn defense and midfield would allow the Raiders to get the ball back. They actually scored while on man-down.

Ending the half, DS had a lead, 4-3. With 5 seconds left in the half, Grafton picked up two penalties, one on goalie Matt Nicalek.

To open the third quarter, backup-goalie Brendan Murphy stepped in for the Indians. Given the outcome of this game, I think Murphy may have become something of a Grafton hero as he made two huge saves, ending a two man down for the Indians without relinquishing a goal.

After killing the penalties (and replacing Murphy with Nicalek again), each team would play stout defense for much of the quarter, not providing each other with many opportunities to score. Eventually, Tyldesley would take the ball on offense, toss a bounce pass across the crease to Johnny Malloy who would net one for the Indians, tying the game 4-4 with 4:17 remaining in the third.

Shortly after, Anthony D’Angelo would call his own number, turn on the jets, and run right past a defender, firing a laser of a shot in while running at full speed. Jack Mahoney wouldn’t let that go unanswered however, as he sniped in the 5th goal for the Raiders. We would head to the fourth quarter in a 5-5 deadlock.

The Indians would find their final goal of regulation less than two minutes in with a goal from Jack Gurney. A minute later, Timmy Polk would net the equalizer for the raiders. For the next 9:06, it would be all defense.

Fans started getting louder and louder. Ground balls were fought for mercilessly in the midfield. Penalties on both teams were killed effectively by the opposing man-down units. Really unbelievable play on both sides.

In the last 30 seconds, each team would possess the ball with an opportunity to score. Nevertheless, each defense would deny the other the opportunity to take the win in regulation. And so, we sent it to overtime.

Sudden death overtime usually feels so short in lacrosse. Not tonight however. Tonight took an eternity. Grafton would win the opening faceoff in overtime, but would turn the ball over to the Raiders about halfway through. DS would get a great look, but Nicalek would make an even better save, giving Grafton the ball back. Grafton would once again waste a possession, giving the ball back to the Raiders with 0:11 to play in OT. A long throw wouldn’t be clean enough to score off of, and we would head into heart-stopping second overtime.

Again, Grafton would win the opening faceoff. They got a decent look at the cage this time but a spectacular save from Bernard would return possession to the Raiders.
With two minutes left in 2OT, the Raiders would call a timeout to draw up a play. The Indians however, spoiled this as they caused a turnover, regaining possession and prompting Coach Alan Rotatori to use his timeout as well.

Grafton would head down the field, possess the ball and once again, fire a great shot on cage, only to have Bernard turn them away at the doorstep YET AGAIN.

Back down on the Raiders offensive end, DS was able to draw a penalty flag on Grafton. It looked like this might be the dagger to finish off the Indians but Matt Nicalek made another REMARKABLE save to keep his team alive. And with that, we would head to triple overtime.

4:00. First goal wins. We approached the 60 minute mark rapidly. Sherborn would win the opening faceoff this time and turn and burn down toward the Grafton cage.

Surprise, surprise, Matt Nicalek would make yet another save. After clearing the ball, Grafton would have a few nice looks from Anthony D’Angelo and Co., but again they were having trouble finding room. Matt Gilliat would finally throw a feed across the middle that would be knocked down, but senior captain Brendan Coates scooped up the ground ball.

Busted play. No defender. Coates ran right up and threw in a low bouncer. Cue the Grafton fan eruption.

Takeaway for Dover-Sherborn

One of the finest programs in Massachusetts fell today to a team it had seen (and rolled) before. I will say this, these guys were a blast to watch. No one was really sure exactly how this game would go, but man did the Raiders put on a show.

They are absolutely LOADED with talent across the field. A one-goal game was all you were going to see Grafton win by, if at all. Huge shout out to Ross Bernard for playing one of the best games I’ve ever seen by a high school goaltender. Props to him.

All that said, I’ve too often found myself personally on the wrong end of overtime games. This one has to hurt a little extra. I really do empathize with the boys in blue. However, I would not hang my head if I was a member of this team. Not even close. If I was a senior, I would have a number of State Championships under my belt already. If I was not a senior, I would feel pretty darn confident that we would be in a pretty similar position to take the title again next year. That’s just the kind of program they have going on over there. It’s first class.

Standing on the sidelines, the Raiders behaved with class, poise, and discipline. They are well coached and have great communal support. Best of luck to the Raiders going forward!

Takeaway for Grafton

This program gets one step better every year, I swear. Breakthrough wins each season. It started years ago making the district final. Then, in 2015 when the Indians beat Mt. Greylock and Ipswich. Then in ’16 taking on Hanover in the state semis. Now to take down nemesis Dover-Sherborn in the semis, with a chance to face Ipswich or Hanover for the title? Grafton has come a long way from a small town program in Central Mass.

I caught up with a number of players, as well as head coach Alan Rotatori, after the game.

Matt Nicalek led off with high praise for his counterpart on the other side of the field. “Ross— I play club with him, he’s an unbelievable goalie. So good.” Then he got into the team’s mentality for the game tonight. “We knew they were beatable. We knew we had a better chance than past years. We knew we had to stop Bailey Laidman— Ryan Warner did an unbelievable job, stepping up, face guarding him the whole game.”

He would continue discussing the defensive prowess the Indians exemplified tonight: “The defense played unbelievable... (Warner) shut down Laidman, kept him to one goal… We wanted to win, man.”

I also asked him about the play of backup, Brendan Murphy. On this, Nicalek commented: “Brendan Murphy stepped up. I told him ‘no matter where it’s going, just throw your body in front of it,’ he did the exact right thing, made a huge save.”

After Nicalek, I got a word with man-of-the-hour Brendan Coates, who despite being quiet all night, found the game-winner in 3rd OT. First question: how do you feel right now Coates?
“This feels fantastic. They smashed us in the past two championships. For us to get back at them in triple overtime is a beautiful feeling.”
On the team mentality coming in, he said: “We knew we could beat them. We were scouting them. We knew we had it in us. We shut Laidman off… Matt Nicalek stood on his head in net for us, making saves left and right…”

Third, I caught up with Anthony D’Angelo. On the win, he remarked: “That felt great. Two years of losing to them in the state finals… finally beating them one time… it’s great.”
On the team’s effort, he told me: “We did great, especially on defense. We did great on offense, looking for open passes, found the passes we practiced.”

On seeing Captain Coates pick up the ground ball that led to the game winner, he added: “I saw it and said ‘you better get this in the back of the net’… (Coates) was kind of getting shut off the whole game so when he got the ball in his stick, he just executed.”

Lastly of course, I had a long talk with Coach Rotatori.

He started off with his opponent: “Dover-Sherborn is a well-coached team. They have a lot of great players and a great feeding system. I have a lot of respect for them. I think that’s the first step to challenging an opponent. Initially, you have to respect them.”

He reiterated to me much of what he said after the Nipmuc game. Coach broke down game tape from the previous two matchups with DS and still felt that the scores should not have been as lopsided as they were.

“I’ve been working on the kids’ mindset. Telling them we CAN do this. We are a program that has been established and it’s just obvious now. We are not a fluke. We are generating quality players and have a good coaching staff and we have a great feeding program. I just feel like things happen for a reason, and I think that, win or lose, it felt good that this game was tight.”

On the overtime game-plan, coach said: “We try to just focus in on ‘what is the next thing we have to do?’ You can’t get ahead of yourself in this game. Our kids are very knowledgeable and coachable… I just said ‘look, we’re going to scramble for the ground ball on the faceoff… get our offensive players again, and just go from there.’ Keep it simple. Keep the scheme the same."

I asked coach once again to discuss Ryan Warner locking off another All-American goal scorer (as he did against Nipmuc's Ryan Richards in the previous round). He replied: “Ryan’s the perfect example of a kid who wants to do just about anything we ask him to do. He’s only a sophomore and he actually picked up his game to the point where he looks pretty confident out there.”

In addition, I asked about the heart-stopping moment when any team must put in their backup goalie. It can end the season for D1 College teams. Certainly it could have been tough for Grafton. Brendan Murphy however made a statement today. On his play, coach said, “Brendan is SOLID down bottom. That’s his strength. Same with the shot coming around the corner. I was amazed. I was a little surprised at (Dover-Sherborn’s) shot selection. Brendan came in and just gave us another boost."

So there it is. A Grafton team at peak performance now. Just one game away from taking the title they’ve been so close to twice now.

As far as where the legacy of this 2017 Grafton team will end up, Saturday will reveal more, but they already have a strong argument to rank as possibly the best team to ever wear the white and green. Best of luck Indians. One final game.

Fresh Cakes.

Ed. Note- I have no idea what "fresh cakes" means. You crazy kids. 
Anyways, check out our interviews with the Grafton stars of the game.- Joe

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