PITTSBORO – As time slowly ticked away, every aspect of the game amplified.
Each shot was a potential winner, each saves a game savior.
Every turnover was disastrous, while every missed opportunity was crushing.
And, after nearly 10 minutes of scoreless lacrosse, Ryan Benevides found his moment, clipping a shot into the net to lead his Bulldogs into the third round.
For No. 8 Northwood, Benevides’ goal with 4:43 left may not have marked the official end of the Chargers’ season in their NCHSAA 1A/2A/3A second-round men’s lacrosse playoff game against No. 9 Williams last Thursday night, but it sure felt like it.
“He’s just a phenomenal player,” fifth-year Bulldogs head coach Mike Kuczkowski said of Benevides after a jubilant postgame celebration. “We knew they were going to lock down a few of our players, so some of the other guys had to step in. And that’s exactly what they did.
For most of the game, the Chargers blocked two of the Bulldogs’ top scorers — senior Matthew White (3 goals per game average) and Benevides (2 G/G) — keeping them just two goals down in three quarters combined.
But they weren’t going to contain them forever.
Just over a minute after Benevides got the go-ahead, he struck again on a counter-attacking opportunity, firing a shot in transition and passing junior keeper Kyler Armstrong in the blink of an eye.
If his first goal in the fourth quarter was the dagger, his second was a stab.
Northwood took his scoring drought into the dressing room, finishing the final 17 minutes and 30 seconds of the game without putting the ball in the net.
After a thrilling two-goal loss, the Chargers had been knocked out of the playoffs, upset by their conference opponent.
“Sometimes it’s just the way the ball bounces,” Chargers head coach Randy Cox said after the loss. “It’s a good team, we’re a good team. They want it, we want it. They fight, we fight. And someone has to win and someone has to lose. The boys fought, they fought until the end, but that’s how the sport works.
Going into last Thursday’s playoff game, the Chargers and Bulldogs were even in the season series, 1-1, with each team scoring 16 combined goals between the two matchups.
Northwood’s victory came on March 8, when the Chargers took a 10-8 road win, but just under a month later fell to the Bulldogs in an 8- 6 on April 1.
Whenever these two teams meet, an easy victory is out of the question.
Hence the Bulldogs’ need for a comeback miracle to advance to the next round.
“I think we’re on par from a player standpoint,” Cox said when asked about the fierce and close games his team has had with Williams this season. “When you look at it overall, I’d like to think our 10s on the pitch are better than their 10s, but their 10 played pretty well (tonight) so it can go either way.”
Both teams have a few attackers who statistically stand above the rest.
For the Chargers, it’s juniors Taylor Laberge (4 goals per game) and Will Smith (3 G/G), while the Bulldogs have White, Benevides and, of course, senior Sam Haverstrom (4 G/G).
Haverstrom kicked the Chargers all night, scoring a game-high 5 goals, almost all of which came when the Bulldogs were trailing.
If they needed a pick-me-up, Haverstrom was there to provide it.
“Sam is not just the captain,” Kuczkowski explained, “he’s the backbone of this (team).”
He scored the first goal of the game just two minutes later, unleashing a quick shot from the left side that whizzed right past senior Chargers goaltender Robbie Delgado and hammered the back of the net to give a 1-0 lead. at Williams.
He would go on to score both of the Bulldogs’ goals in the first quarter, keeping things even with the Chargers at 2-2 after scoring two goals in 58 seconds – one each from Pierce Cook senior and Jason Walden junior – to get the upper hand. with a 2-1 advantage.
Despite the offensive power of each team, the rubber match was nothing less than a defensive dogfight.
The effects were seen early on, when Laberge and Smith struggled to make an impact on first-quarter goals despite their fair share of opportunities.
However, the Bulldogs’ defense aiming for the Chargers’ best guns gave way to some of Northwood’s most unlikely heroes — like Cook and Walden — to provide the firepower.
Walden, who has averaged about a goal per game this season, scored a team-high 3 goals in the playoff loss, tied with Laberge, as he benefited as a third option from Northwood.
But in the second quarter, Smith led the way in a goal barrage that gave the Chargers their first multi-goal lead.
To start the period, second-year Northwood forward Carson Fortunes slowed the pace of the game as he stood near midfield with the ball in his stick, considering his options. The Bulldogs defenders waited nearly a minute before, out of the blue, junior Will Johnson burst into left midfield, received a pass from Fortunes and shoved his way to the net, catapulting a shot past Williams goaltender Tristan Gallovich for the first goal of the quarter to give the Chargers a 3-2 lead.
Smith scored the next two goals for Northwood, including one from a man-made opportunity after two sharp penalties on White, then another where he miraculously got his own rebound after Gallovich blocked his shot, made a quick spinning move and scored from the right side of the net.
With just seconds before halftime and the Chargers holding on with a 3-goal, 6-3 lead, Haverstrom scored to bring the Bulldogs to life with 14.1 seconds left, sending them into the break on a high. .
The third quarter was marked by shifts in momentum and blown leads.
Laberge, as part of his 3-goal third period, scored a game-breaking run in the opening face-off just 21 seconds from the start of the quarter, erasing the damage Haverstrom had caused before halftime and giving the Chargers a 7-4 lead and The Momentum.
But, shockingly, Williams responded with three goals in 67 seconds – including one on an interception that led to an easy quick break – to tie the game at 7 apiece.
The quick change in momentum didn’t seem to faze the Chargers, however, with Laberge and Walden teaming up to score a pair of goals in just six seconds of playing time, followed by a fine choice play from Walden that leads to an enveloping goal. by Laberge about 90 seconds later, giving Northwood a 10-7 lead with 5:30 left in third.
Then the Chargers went dark.
For the remainder of the game, Northwood would be unable to find the net as they watched the Bulldogs’ big three – Haverstrom, White and Benevides – score four combined goals to put the Chargers away.
As has become typical of the third period, Haverstrom, White and Aidan Walsh each scored a goal, tying the game at 10-10 with 3:30 left in the third, just two minutes after Laberge’s last point.
Next came a busy fourth quarter on defense, ending with the decisive goals from Benevides and a plethora of missed shots by the Chargers.
“There were a few goals that maybe we should have saved, we didn’t, and a few goals that maybe we should have scored, so I don’t think (the loss) is related to any element of the game,” Cox mentioned. “I think we hit three or four pipes, where if we don’t hit the pipe it’s a goal and it’s a change of momentum. … We had chances, it could have been different, but It was not the case.
“It’s frustrating as a coach,” he continued. “I think the other coaches are just as frustrated, I know the players are frustrated because they wanted to be on the other end so we could play the next one and go to a state championship, but those are the playoffs and everyone comes to play.
For the Chargers, this game is defined by the heartbreaking collapse of the team as they lost three separate three-goal leads en route to a second-round elimination.
But the way Cox sees it, it’s a learning opportunity.
With just four graduating seniors on the roster, Cox said he hopes this loss – agonizing as it is – is what his team needs to make them better and stronger lacrosse players next year. .
“We have a young squad, we have a lot to look forward to,” Cox said. “It’s all part of growing and maturing. The juniors who are leaders in the team, two of them are captains. They will feel this and take it with them next year. … I’m so proud of our boys, they have nothing to be ashamed of. They should feel good about what they’ve accomplished this year.
Northwood ends the season with an 11-6 record (9-3 in conference), good for second place in the Central/Mid-Carolina 1A/2A/3A conference.
Williams (11-8, 6-6 in conference) will face the Orange Panthers (15-2, 11-0 in conference) on Tuesday in the third round of the 1A/2A/3A playoffs. (This game will be played after the News+Record press deadline.)
Journalist Victor Hensley can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.