Coast Guard comes up short in NEWMAC men's lacrosse final
New London — An emotional Matt Huemme broke down while talking about the Coast Guard Academy lacrosse program's journey from Division III newcomer to conference championship contender in just four seasons.
The Bears achieved a significant milestone by appearing in their first New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference title game on Saturday.
"From my second year on, we always wanted to be in this game," said Huemme, one of three seniors. "And every guy on this team fought hard for it."
Then Huemme paused, fighting back tears.
Coast Guard expected to win on Saturday despite facing perennial power Springfield, which captured its 11th straight conference tournament title with an 11-7 win at Cadet Memorial Field. The second-seeded Pride (13-5) earned an NCAA tournament berth.
The Bears have come a marathon distance from the team that was run off the field by Springfield, 23-6, during their first season in 2015.
"We're ecstatic," coach Ray LaForte said. "I'm going to go over and have a little bite to eat with the kids and they're all going to be sad. We've developed the mentality and expectation that we're going to beat (Springfield). I think that's a healthy thing.
"... I said to the guys after that game, `If you dare fall in love, you're going to get your heart broken. And if you dare put it all on the line for a victory for your brothers, right then and there you're setting yourself up to get your heart broken.' That's the only way to play."
Top-seeded Coast Guard played well in defeat but couldn't recover from a 9-3 deficit. The Bears had only six turnovers and held a 42-32 edge in shots. Anthony Wyler led the way with three goals and fellow junior Jake Pope added two while Huemme had a goal and an assist and sophomore Justin Edwards also scored.
"I'm astounded at the stat line of the game," LaForte said. "In a nutshell, it's truly our cleanest stat line of the season. It means we played our best lacrosse today."
It's difficult to knock off a veteran team with championship experience like Springfield. The Pride's relentless high pressure attack frustrated the Bears and senior goalie Jake Reynolds had a terrific game, making 17 saves while earning most outstanding player honors.
"You've got a high level game and it came down to goalies," LaForte said. "Their guy played great. He was the co-defensive player of the year in the league."
Reynolds racked up several tough saves to prevent the Bears from taking charge early on. Huemme set up Pope's goal for Coast Guard's only lead of the game, 1-0.
"Jake Reynolds played out of his mind," Huemme said. "There were moments where you expected the ball to go in and he was catching it."
Springfield took control from there, scoring four straight goals and leading 6-2 at halftime. The advantage ballooned to 9-3 in the third quarter.
Then, for the first time, Coast Guard found some offense rhythm. Edwards, Pope and Wyler each scored in about a four-minute span to cut the gap to 9-7 with 9:48 left in the fourth quarter.
"If we got the next goal, I think we're winning," LaForte said.
But Springfield responded with two goals to ice the victory. Junior Jack Vail finished with a game-high five points on three goals and two assists while sophomore Joe Hawley added two goals and an assist.
The Pride won the regular season meeting, 11-8, so they expected a tight rematch.
"I have a ton of respect for Coast Guard," Springfield coach Keith Bugbee said. "Ray has done a great job. I knew this was going to be real, real tough game for us and we were going to have to play all 60 minutes. And I think we did.
"... Coast Guard is only going to get better and better."
The pain will linger for Coast Guard but also serve as motivation for next season's returning players. The Bears (14-4), who won their first regular season title and set a program record for single season wins, are losing just three players.
"I think our team will definitely take this moment to heart," said Huemme, who scored Coast Guard's first goal as a Division III program in 2015. "Tons of lessons learned. The biggest thing I've learned over the four years playing in this program is that we learn from every single moment and every mistake. The guys are always willing to embody it and move forward and get better every day."
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