Published March 31. 2010 4:00AM Updated March 31. 2010 6:10AM
New London — On a recent trip to a local gas station, senior Steve Dachille discovered that word is spreading about the early-season success of Connecticut College lacrosse.
"Somebody came up to me - I was wearing my sweatshirt - and congratulated us on having a great year," Dachille said. "It's been nice all around New London and especially on campus."
A few years ago Dachille could have stood on Bank Street in full Conn lacrosse gear without generating much response.
That's what an unbeaten run to start the season, including an upset of fifth-ranked Middlebury last Saturday, can do for a program's notoriety.
Apparently word about the 10th-ranked Camels reached New Hampshire. Conn had to fight off a stiff challenge from a highly motivated Keene State on Tuesday, escaping with a 12-11 victory Tuesday at Silfen Field.
After an 8-3 halftime lead dissolved into an 11-11 tie, freshman Stephen Eicher rescued the Camels by scoring the game-winning goal with one minute, 42 seconds remaining. Conn is off to a 7-0 start for the first time in program history.
Coach Dave Cornell saw the near-loss experience as beneficial to his team.
"We keep saying that we're a pretty good team and we're an ugly team and we play hard," Cornell said. "We need games like this. It's kind of a house-money game, a nonconference game. Hopefully, this will prepare us for trying to get into the NESCAC tournament."
The Camels have qualified for the NESCAC tournament only once in the last four seasons. They took a significant step in that direction by beating Middlebury for the first time since 1995. The victory vaulted them into a top 10 ranking in Division III.
Defeating a powerhouse NESCAC program held more significance to the Camels than being ranked.
"That was a program win for us, in terms of anybody we recruit, they know who that team is," Cornell said. "That's really why that was such a big win for us."
The increased attention from a growing Camel lacrosse fan club made for a concerned coach heading into Tuesday's game, Conn's first as a ranked team in recent memory. As one of the team captains, Dachille made sure his teammates had the proper focus.
The Camels started strong, controlling possession while building a comfortable 5-0 lead. Dachille scored four of his team's first five goals, including the 100th of his career on lightning-quick shot from the right side of the goal late in the first period.
"Other guys were creating everything and I was just in the right spot," said Dachille, who finished with five goals. "They were hitting with the ball and I was just finishing."
With Conn holding a 9-4 lead, Keene State (3-5) seized the momentum. The Owls attack eventually tied the game on freshman Jonathan Rodrick's goal with 2:35 remaining.
But the Camels regained their composure, winning the groundball off the face-off and setting up Eicher's unassisted game-winner out of a timeout. They finally could exhale when a last-second shot bounced over the goal.
"When things started to tighten up, we were the ones that got a little nervous," Cornell said. "In the end, we were able to close it out."
Life is about to get tougher for the Camels, who visit Bowdoin and Williams College in back-to-back NESCAC games.
Teamwork and unselfish play pushed the Camels to this unbeaten start. They plan on sticking to their wining formula as the schedule stiffens.
"We're 7-0 but we haven't accomplished anything," Dachille said. "It's the mind-set of the team to just want to win every day."