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December 15, 2005

PSU Lacrosse featured in Plymouth Magazine

Panther Sports
PSU Lacrosse Teams Are Anything but Lax
by Kent Cherrington Panther women's lacrosse team

Plymouth State has enjoyed varied amounts of success in men's and women's lacrosse dating back to the 1970s. So it was exciting in May 2005 when both Panther lacrosse teams played in the championship game of ECAC New England Tournaments on the same afternoon, just a couple of hundred miles apart.

PSU hosted archrival Keene State at Arold Field in the women's ECAC title game while the men's clash was at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass. The two Panther teams took different paths to reach their respective championship challenges and met with different results, but both ended with the same positive outlook.

The Panther women's team had enjoyed a brilliant campaign in 2004, going undefeated in the regular season, advancing to the NCAA regional final, and finishing with a 17-1 record. PSU would have to avoid a letdown following a terrific season like that.

After overcoming the loss of three of the top players in the program's history and going through a coaching change, PSU enjoyed a solid campaign in 2005, posting a 9-4 regular-season record. The team went undefeated in Little East Conference play for the fourth straight year, but Eastern Connecticut denied PSU its fourth straight LEC title with a 12-8 upset victory in the LEC Tournament final.

"The loss was extremely hard for us because Eastern is such a rival and because it was for the conference championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament," said first-year head coach Paula Habel, "but looking back that was a blessing in disguise. Instead we went on to the ECAC Tournament."

PSU earned the top seed in the ECAC tourney, its sixth straight post-season berth, and breezed past Lasell College and the University of New England in the first two games. The Panthers then knocked off rival Keene State in a dramatic final at Arold Field, completing the season with a 13-5 record and eight wins in their last nine games.

"The players were very excited with the way the season ended and it has really motivated them to work hard for next year," said Habel. "I am excited about all of the talent we have returning."

After some down years, the Panther men's squad had increased their number of wins each of the past three seasons. The 2005 campaign got off to a rough start at 2-6, due to a difficult schedule and some key injuries. The coaching staff met with the players and "refocused our season," according to second-year head coach Andrew Brauch. It worked, as PSU won its final five regular season contests.

"...On this day, it was our mental toughness that helped us do the impossible."

The season looked like it would end after a disappointing upset loss to UMass Boston in the first round of the Little East Tournament, but PSU earned a post-season opportunity with a berth in the ECAC Tournament. It was only PSU's fourth ECAC berth since 1988, and the previous three all ended in first-round losses.

"We were the sixth seed and we had a big hill to climb," said Brauch. "To everybody's surprise, we upset third-seeded Lasell in the first round, 9-8. As we walked off the field, we were just elated that we had won the first ECAC Tournament game in our program's history."

The prize was a semifinal match-up against second-seeded Eastern Connecticut, which had defeated Plymouth State 10 straight times, mostly by large margins. Things weren't looking good for PSU when Eastern took a 5-0 lead and held a 7-3 advantage at halftime.

"Throughout the league we are known as one of the toughest physical teams to play," said Brauch, "but on this day, it was our mental toughness that helped us do the impossible."

An Eastern Conn. flurry of goals left the Panthers trailing 12-6 with less than 10 minutes to play in the game.

"We could have given up," said Brauch, "but instead we fought like winners do." The Panthers rattled off six unanswered goals, and junior Jon Gagnon evened the contest at 12-12 with only 17 seconds left in regulation play.

Now facing overtime, Brauch told his team one thing: "This is sudden victory, so have fun." Two minutes later, Gagnon scored again to give the Panthers the stunning 13-12 triumph.

"Although it was only one win, it represented so much more," said Brauch. "We staged one of the biggest upsets in Division III and reached the ECAC Championship game. It was particularly special because we shared it with six seniors who had been through some hardship in their careers. I have never been involved in something so rewarding in my life."

The Panthers were sidetracked by defending champion Western New England in the championship game, but that couldn't erase the memories of success in getting there.

"The program is headed in the right direction," said Brauch. " While we are not fully satisfied with what we have accomplished, we are no longer used to losing. In fact, we know how to win."