Watch out, Denver — the Dragons are officially a force to be reckoned with.
In front of a divided crowd of nearly 3,000 people, Drexel simply shut down the Ivy League champion and fourth-seeded University of Pennsylvania 16-11 May 11 at Franklin Field.
The Dragons started the game out sloppily — as teams coming off emotional victories tend to do — giving up two quick goals to go down 2-0 fewer than three minutes into the game.
Four minutes later, sophomore midfielder Hank Brown scored his second goal of the season to break the ice and put the Dragons on the board. Getting contributions from unusual sources would become a theme of sorts for the Dragons in this game.
From Brown’s goal until the end of the quarter, the Dragons and Quakers alternated goals, culminating in a Nick Saputo goal with 1.6 seconds remaining in the period to bring the game to a 4-3 Penn lead heading into the second.
The Quakers looked incredible, almost unbeatable, in the first half as they dominated possession and moved the ball with a calculated precision, leaving the Dragon defense unable to establish any kind of offensive rhythm.
Sophomore goaltender Will Gabrielsen emerged as the stabilizer for the Dragons in the first half. While the Penn offense was seemingly unstoppable in the Drexel zone and Penn goaltender Brian Feeney was having the half of his life, Gabrielsen was the reason the game didn’t get out of hand in a hurry.
With nine minutes remaining in the half, Chris Hilburn buried an unassisted goal for Penn to put the Quakers up 5-3 before a response by Drexel senior attacker Nick Trizano brought the game back within one for the Dragons.
The next five minutes were a defensive bout, as both teams possessed back and forth but were unable to score. With 1:16 remaining, a turnover on a man-up opportunity for Drexel allowed Penn’s Alex Blonsky to score a shorthanded goal to give Penn a two-goal lead.
At this point, the Penn fans couldn’t be contained, cheering a strong first-half performance by their team.
As it turns out, they may have been a bit too eager.
With 17 seconds remaining in the first half, sophomore Jules Raucci netted a rocket of a goal, setting up quite possibly the most incredible 11 seconds in Drexel men’s lacrosse history.
On the ensuing faceoff, specialist Saputo quickly won possession from Penn’s Danny Feeney. After about 20 feet of full-on sprinting down the middle of the field, Saputo did the improbable and ripped a shot from 20 feet out, bouncing it in to tie the game at 6-6 with 12 seconds remaining in the half.
The Dragons would have been happy going into half on that note, as they were simply outplayed for most of the first half, according to head coach Brian Voelker.
“To be honest, Penn totally outplayed us in the first half,” Voelker said. “I was thinking it would be good to go into halftime only down one until Nick [Saputo] really turned things around for us.”
But Saputo wasn’t done turning things around with 12 seconds left.
Just a mere six seconds later, Saputo scored in virtually the same exact way, giving the Dragons their third goal in 11 seconds of play, as well as notching his third goal of the game.
To put that in perspective, the Dragons scored three goals in 11 seconds after managing just four in the first 1,789 seconds.
That outburst, led by Saputo scoring the same amount of goals in a half against Penn as he had all season, would essentially end the Quakers, even though there was still the entire second half to be played.
Those three goals were the beginning of a 7-0 Dragon run, which ended with 7:30 remaining in the third quarter and Drexel leading 11-7.
Leading in the fourth quarter seemed kind of foreign to the Dragons, who won their last two games in heroic comeback fashion, but they showed that they can dominate regardless of whether they’re leading or trailing late in games.
They came out in the fourth and put up a 3-0 run in the first five minutes of the period to extend their lead to seven goals and seal the victory.
Notably, senior attacker Ben McIntosh scored his first two goals of the game during this run. Up until this point in the game, McIntosh hadn’t even scored and the Dragons still had a four-goal lead.
In terms of future postseason success, this is incredibly important, as having depth and a multitude of scoring options makes effective defense virtually impossible.
“We’ve said it all year: We’ve got so many offensive weapons that they can’t just cover myself, or Nick [Trizano], or [Ryan] Belka, or Cole [Shafer],” McIntosh said after the game. “If one of us isn’t having a good day, we need other guys to step up. Like today, we had Jules [Raucci] and Saputo step up and score multiple goals — it makes us very tough to defend.”
In the playoffs, that’s especially important. Teams game plan harder than ever against specific players.
But the Dragons have so many weapons that cutting one player out won’t even slightly dampen their output; it will leave other players open for opportunities, as they showed Sunday.
On Sunday, the real hero was Saputo. Sometimes an unsung hero, doing the dirty work that is facing off against the opponents’ faceoff specialists, Saputo has become the heart of this team.
Possession is at a premium in lacrosse, and Saputo has shown a unique ability to win faceoffs and give his team the opportunity to win games. Throughout the streak, Saputo has been one of the best in the country at this somewhat underrated aspect of the game and consistently comes up with big victories in crucial moments.
In Sunday’s game, Saputo won 21 of 31 faceoffs, which proved to be a major difference between the two Philly rivals.
When asked about his performance in the game and the upcoming game against the University of Denver, Saputo gave a coy smile and spoke one sentence:
“Things were clicking today, and hopefully we can keep it rolling.”
Short and sweet — just like the possessions leading to his goals.
The Dragons will look to keep it rolling May 18 in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament against Denver at the University of Delaware.