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Men's Lacrosse | Men’s lacrosse captures first conference title

Published: Sunday, May 23, 2010

Updated: Sunday, May 23, 2010 15:05

DJ Hessler

James Choca / Tufts Daily

Rising senior D.J. Hessler beat Middlebury keeper Ryan Deane with a momentum-changing goal late in the third quarter of the NESCAC Championship game. The goal broke a string of eight straight Panther goals and ignited a 6-0 Jumbo run that gave Tufts the lead.

A school record for victories, a one-loss season and the No. 2 seed in the conference — all of these things had already been achieved by the men's lacrosse team as it headed into the NESCAC Tournament. But it still had one final acknowledgement missing from its résumé: a NESCAC title. That is, until May 9.

The Jumbos made more history as they improved to 16-1 on the season on their way to winning the program's first conference championship, 13-12, over the Middlebury Panthers.

The title didn't come easily, however. Both the semifinal and championship games were emotionally draining, one-goal comeback wins. In the final matchup with Middlebury, six unanswered goals brought Tufts back from a four-goal, third-quarter deficit to win the conference trophy and the automatic bid in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

"I mean, it was just really exciting," graduating senior tri-captain Doug DiSesa said of the program's first championship win. "We've been working hard for four years, and we've been close a couple times before, but to win it is so special, especially as a senior. It is just a reflection of all the hard work we put in over the fall and summer just really working on our mental toughness."

"It feels awesome," rising senior and New England Div. III Player of the Year D.J. Hessler added. "This is obviously the first time ever for our program, so that's pretty cool, and it just feels real good. We were in it last year and got beaten by Wesleyan. We got that bitter taste in our mouth and saw what it's like to see the other team celebrate. It's always better to be on the other side of it."

The game didn't look like the nail-biter it would turn out to be midway through the second quarter, as Tufts led the Panthers 7-3 after a five-goal streak that began the period. However, the momentum quickly turned, and Middlebury put in eight straight to go up 11-7 before the rattled Jumbo defense could recover.

Tufts looked battered, and it seemed like the hopes of both the team and its fans were fading. But the tides shifted tremendously again two minutes before the end of the third when Hessler put one in and breathed life back into the offense. The rest of the squad followed his lead and the six-goal onslaught began.

It was Hessler who scored the go-ahead goal to make it 12-11, while graduating senior Jamie Atkins put in an insurance goal that would prove to be the game-winner as Middlebury struck one more time before the clock sounded and the Jumbos rushed the field.

"We just worried about just scoring once," Hessler said. "That really was a game of runs, so all we were hoping was get the next goal and start our own run. Luckily we were able to do that. You know they're a good team, and it's going be hard to come back, especially late in game, but you've got to keep belief in yourself, and that's what we did. We were able to put it all together finally."

The day before was no less exciting. Against Wesleyan, the team that knocked out No. 1 seed Conn. College and gave Tufts the right to host the semifinals and finals of the tournament, the game changed again in the last two minutes of the third. But this time, it was the Cardinals who took all the momentum late in the game.

Wesleyan went on a four-goal run beginning with 2:14 remaining in the third quarter to take a 10-9 lead with under three minutes left in regulation. Tufts, which had not trailed in the game up until that point and had led by at least two until just a few minutes earlier, needed a quick recovery if it wanted to avoid a repeat of the end of the 2009 season, when the Cardinals upended Tufts in the conference title game 14-10.

As time wound down to less than two minutes to play, the Jumbos refused to give up. And, in a moment of complacency by Wesleyan, rising junior Sean Kirwan capitalized. At 1:24, Kirwan found the back of the net off a feed from Hessler, and the Jumbos let out a sigh of relief and prepared, at the very least, to hold on for overtime with the score tied at 10-10.

But Kirwan wasn't finished with his heroics yet. With 26 seconds on the clock, he converted again, this time off a pass from rising senior Ryan Molloy, and the crowd erupted. The defense held tight, though it wouldn't need to do much as Tufts' back-to-back scores deflated Wesleyan's momentum in the waning moments of the game.

"Defeating Wesleyan was huge, especially from a revenge standpoint from last year," DiSesa said. "I think it, again, is just a testament to our mental toughness … forgetting about the last play and focusing on the next play. We always say, ‘We need just one goal, one ground ball,' and when that game is done, we need to just focus on the next challenge, and that's how we looked at the Middlebury game. It was a great win over Wesleyan, but we needed to focus on Middlebury and get that win now."

To reach the semifinals a week earlier, on Sunday, May 2, the Jumbos had defeated Williams 13-9. Again, at just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Ephs tied the score at nine apiece with a four-goal rush and put the Jumbos on their heels.

But, as he often has done in his storied career, Hessler proved to be the difference-maker, notching the game-winner and setting off a four-goal offensive run that silenced any hint of an Ephs comeback. News traveled onto the field that Conn. College had lost, and the team knew it had earned the top spot in the tournament and would be at Bello the upcoming weekend. The stage had been set for a dramatic tournament.

Looking back, the Jumbos came close to being eliminated early more than a few times. But they continually proved to be the better team down the stretch.

"I think [the team's success in close games] says a lot about us," Hessler said. "In the past — we've actually talked a lot about this — even my freshman year, we never won the close game. We could never win, and this entire year we've been playing in close games. No one ever lost confidence in each other, and we never lost confidence in ourselves. That's a sign of a good team; no matter the circumstances, keep fighting and believing, and we know we'll be able to pull it off."

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