PHILADELPHIA - Tied 8-8 entering the fourth quarter, the #20 Hawks scored three of the final four goals of the game as the top-seeded Saint Joseph's men's lacrosse team earned an 11-9 win over fourth-seeded Sacred Heart (7-8) in the Northeast Conference Championship semifinals on Thursday afternoon on Sweeney Field.
With their 11th consecutive win, which matches the program record for single-season victories, the Hawks improve to 11-3 overall and advance to face Robert Morris in the NEC title game on Saturday afternoon at noon on Sweeney Field.
"That was as evenly-played a game as there could have been played in a conference semifinal," said NEC Coach of the Year Taylor Wray following the win. "Sacred Heart is a terrific team. They came out of the half and really took it to us and outscored us by three in the third and tied the ball game up. We were just fortunate to be on the winning end down the stretch. I thought that the plays that the seniors made down the stretch really secured the victory for us."
Senior attackman Chris Blewitt registered a hat trick and a helper for a game-high four points. Senior midfielders Kyle Cain and Will McNamara hit the back of the net twice while graduate student attackman Mike Rastivo chipped in two points on one goal and one assist.
Senior defenseman Nick Buckley was tasked with defending NEC Offensive Player of the Year and overall Player of the Year Max Tuttle, who entered the game averaging 3.21 goals per contest. Buckley held Tuttle to one score for the entire game.
Redshirt freshman goalkeeper Mike Adler (10-3) made 10 saves, including five in the second quarter and four in the third, in the full 60:00.
Saint Joseph's jumped out to a 4-1 edge after the first 15:00, paced by Cain's pair of early scores (14:12, 5:38). Blewitt also scored his first of the day (7:13) while senior attackman Patrick O'Brien scored on a feed from freshman midfielder Austin Strazzulla (2:45) to close out the first quarter.
Sacred Heart's Max Tuttle cut the Pioneer's deficit to two with a score at the 7:38 mark of the second, but McNamara scored on dish from senior long stick midfielder Austin Smith (7:00) just 38 seconds later to help SJU maintain a three-goal advantage.
SHU's Joe Saggesse converted on an EMO with 2:57 to play before the halftime break, but the Hawks once again answered at Blewitt hit for his second unassisted goal of the half with 2:28 to play, once again giving the Crimson and Gray a three-goal advantage, 6-3, entering the halftime break.
The third quarter made the difference for the Pioneers, as Sacred Heart scored five of seven goals in the third quarter to equalize, 8-8, heading into the final 15:00.
However, a McNamara-Blewitt-Rastivo sequence put the Hawks back up by one (11:48) and Blewitt scored on a feed from Rastivo just minutes later (8:07) as the co-captains put the Hawks up by two entering the final 8:07 of regulation.
SHU's Julian Garritano inched the Pioneers to within one goal with 3:12 to play, but Saint Joseph's redshirt freshman midfielder Nicholas Vernacchio hit the back of the net with 1:42 remaining on the scoreboard to seal the two-goal victory for the advancing SJU.
For the game, Saint Joseph's and Sacred Heart fired off 31 shots apiece, but SJU's defensive unit allowed just one shot on goal in the final quarter. The Hawks earned a 28-23 edge in ground balls while the face-off units won 12 possessions apiece, as Saint Joseph's freshman face-off specialist Billy Jardeleza went 11-of-22 for the game, including 4-of-5 in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
"The fact that we were able to get to 50 percent in facing off was huge," noted Wray of Jardeleza's performance from the circle. "And, we won the ground ball battle, which we said in our pregame meeting was going to be the critical stat to the game."
Smith and senior short stick defensive midfielder Davis Stoner combined for 11 of SJU's 28 ground balls. Stoner turned in a notably gritty performance in the transition game, continually battling off SHU defenders en route to successful clear attempts for the Crimson and Gray.