Lions live to see another day, battle back to upend Amherst

Junior attacker Alex Spark. (Courtesy of the Sports Information Desk)

Cortland, N.Y. — Junior attacker Alex Spark dodged her way through defenders and ripped off a shot that could have been heard all the way back in Ewing.

It was the culmination of a comeback that saw the College’s No. 4-ranked lacrosse team inch their way back, tooth and nail, from a 7-4 deficit to overcome No. 7-ranked Amherst College 8-7 on Saturday, May 13. Spark’s goal with 4.6 seconds left was just the exclamation point on the Lions’ comeback story.

“It felt pretty good because there is so much energy on this team,” said Spark, who finished the game with a team-high five goals. “Throughout the whole game we just worked so hard and we didn’t come here to lose this game and we fought to the very last second to win.”

With 7:20 left in the contest and her team down by three goals, head coach Sharon Pfluger called a timeout to settle the team down. She reminded them that they still had time — they just need to keep possession and go to goal. After the break in play concluded, Pfluger saw her words come to life vicariously through her players.

Less than 20 seconds later, Spark began a run that would lead the Lions to triumph. The Lions won the following draw control before turning it over, but there was just too much fight to hold them down.

Sophomore defender Claire Engelman stripped the ball away from Amherst’s Alex Philie and began a sequence that would end with Spark netting a score from the 8-meter.

“Our main goal was to keep pressuring and pressuring,” senior midfielder Kathleen Notos said. “Whoever had the ball, we needed to get the ball. If we applied pressure, we could cause turnovers when we needed to and we were sliding, playing a good helping defense.”

With time becoming precious and possession being the name of the game, the Lord Jeffs won the draw control. Instead of dropping her head though, junior defender Becky Gilman rose to the occasion and played team defense, knocking the ball free from an Amherst attacker and allowing senior midfielder Leigh Mitchell to pick up her seventh ground ball of the game.

The answer to the Lions woes on offense again came from the stick of Spark, who tied things up at seven by sending one into the nylon after receiving a pass from junior attacker Trenna Hill. But, it’s a moment that never would have happened if not for Gilman’s caused turnover, according to Mitchell.

“I think our defense really stepped up, getting the ball back for us, and just gave us more opportunities that we were able to capitalize on,” Mitchell said.

The score now tied at seven, the Lions had one thing on their minds: We need to get the ball back.

“They didn’t have a choice, there was no option because giving up was never an option,” Pfluger said. “This is what you work for. It doesn’t matter how tired you are and it doesn’t matter what else happened in the game because it’s all about the present. You adjust, you make opportunities for yourself and just hope that everyone is on the same wavelength.”

Right on cue, the Lions’ season leader in draw controls, sophomore midfielder Lauren Pigott, snagged the tip off out of the air and sent it ahead to the attack.

The Lions worked the ball around, with each member of the team getting several touches before setting up the final all-or-nothing charge toward the net. As the clock ticked down, Spark began to make her move and, after a halt due to a foul call on Amherset, she finished the job — a summation of the Lions’ efforts from the defense all the way to the attack.

“It was a matter of finding the right combination: to get the ball back, to get the ball down the field, figuring out who is going to take the shot,” Pfluger said. “The defense, the midfield and the attack all had to groove together in order for that to work.”

The Lions’ late stretch of goals was much needed after the team saw shot after shot either hit off the post or end up in the stick of Amherset goalkeeper Lamia Harik.

“Some go off the post, some the goalie makes good saves, some are shots that could have been better,” Pfluger said. “You get that mix of three going and you’ve good a bad combination.”

Although the offense struggled goals from Spark and Hill as well as a couple of scores from sophomore attacker Jen Garavente – whose second goal ended a nearly 25-minute scoring drought — kept the Lions within striking range.

While the offense found its way, the defense — whose play led to 17 turnovers by the Lord Jeffs — held on for the Lions.

“We finally found someone who was hot and Alex was on, our plan was to give her the ball, but it was also the defense that came up clutch,” Notos said.

Waiting in the wings for the Lions is No. 2-ranked SUNY Cortland — a team that beat the Lions 9-8 back in March. Pfluger believes that her squad’s play down the stretch against Amherst will be a good precursor for tomorrow’s game against the Red Dragons.

“It was a hard-fought game. Amherst played really well, they forced us to play very hard and we want that,” Pfluger said. “We want to earn our right to each next round and I think that we did.”

Notes: Spark’s five goals gave her 76 on the season, which is fourth best in a season in program history and leaves her 11 away from breaking alumna Ali Jaeger’s record of 86. Mitchell recorded an assist in the contest, giving her 100 points for the season. She is the only Lion to ever record three 100-point seasons.