When the Lakeridge and OES lacrosse teams get together, no matter the circumstances, chances are it's going to be an epic finish. Heading into this season, the two powerhouses were each expected to be 'rebuilding'. What that meant is that neither the Pacers or the Aardvarks were overwhelming favorites to win the state championship.
And how did it work out? The teams found themselves squaring off in the semifinals with the winner earning a legitimate shot at another championship.
And, not surprisingly, it was another epic finish. A one-goal game that went down to the final possession. This time it was OES that prevailed, 8-7.
'I think the last five times we've played (OES) there's been about five goals difference between the teams,' Pacer coach Curt Sheinin said.
Simply looking at the score one could surmise that it was a well-played back-and-forth affair that could have gone either way depending on a bounce or two. While that was certainly the case, it's the way that the Pacers lost which made this one extremely difficult to take.
Lakeridge led with a minute and a half to play in the game, having scored just 40 seconds earlier on an Andrew Clayton shot.
The Pacers had played phenomenal defense all game long, staying patient against OES's methodical offense, creating turnovers and rarely allowing clean, open shots.
But, with the game on the line, the Aardvarks' Michael Gale took matters into his own hands. Lakeridge's Curtis Kisky was stellar defending against Sam Baker, OES's top attackman and, as a result, the Aardvarks had to look elsewhere for their scoring. After a turnover, Gale scored with 1:23 to play, tying the game at 7-7.
One of the few things the Pacers didn't execute well on during the game was working the ball up from its defense to its attack.
Lakeridge was whistled for a number of penalties for taking too long moving the ball from zone to zone and had a number of ill-advised passes that were intercepted, leading to scoring chances for OES.
The Aardvarks regained possession on another turnover with under a minute to go in the game and called time-out to set up a play.
Then, with 25 seconds left in the game, Gale unleashed a tough bounce shot that found the corner of the net.
Still, the game wasn't over. Lakeridge, which did a good job on face-offs all evening, won the crucial loose ball and called time-out with 15 seconds left.
OES built a virtual wall of defenders in front of its net as Clayton took the ball and fired a shot wide.
Lakeridge still held onto possession but couldn't get off another shot in the final seconds.
One got the sense that, had the game gone on for another 50 quarters, the final deficit would still just be a single goal.
Lakeridge jumped out to a quick lead in the contest, scoring twice in the first minute and a half.
Michael Hoch scored the game's first goal on a pretty assist by Jordan Schrader. Then Conor Ryan went unmarked and scored 30 seconds later, giving his team a quick 2-0 advantage.
OES responded with a quick goal of its own before the game tightened up. Lakeridge controlled possession in the first quarter and got off more shots. OES's goalie proved to be difficult to overcome, however.
Jeff Garrett scored for Lakeridge, making it a two-goal lead again but OES responded with a goal from Gale just over a minute later.
The Pacers held a one-goal lead heading into the second quarter but OES came out quickly. The Aardvarks dominate the opening minutes of the quarter and scored three goals in a two-minute period.
'We didn't do ourselves any favors in the second quarter but we came back very well,' Sheinin said.
Again, Lakeridge picked up its defense. The Pacers continued to struggle clearing the ball but goalie Warren Neilson bailed the team out on more than one occasion.
With 1:14 to play in the half, Ryan got on the board again on an assist from Clayton. Then, OES appeared to score a momentum-building goal at the closing whistle but it was waved off by the referees. Still, the Aardvarks led 5-4 at the break.
The third quarter was ruled by Lakeridge's defense. The Pacers quickly tied the game on a strange play in which a ball deflected into the net apparently off of the OES goalkeeper's stick.
Then neither team scored for nearly eight minutes. Ironically, some of the best lacrosse of the night was played in this period.
OES's goalie stopped a handful of good Lakeridge shots and with just under four minutes to play in the quarter, the Pacers were whistled for their first man-down penalty of the game.
The Aardvarks couldn't take advantage and turned the ball over.
With three minutes to go in the quarter, Schrader scored on a breakaway off an assist from Clayton and a terrific late defensive stand in the quarter gave the Pacers a slim lead with 12 minutes to play.
OES tied the game again two and a half minutes into the final quarter, breaking a long scoring drought.
For the next five minutes, the Pacers controlled the game and received some golden opportunities to reclaim the lead.
Lakeridge stripped OES's goalie as he tried to clear the ball and the ensuing scramble for the ball rolled wide of the net. A minute later, Clayton had a one-on-none opportunity that was somehow thwarted.
'They've got a great goalkeeper and we had our opportunities. It was great that we were able to create those,' Sheinin said.
The Pacers played up-tempo all game long and, as a result, had far more shots than OES did on the night. When the Aarvarks got possession, they sought to slow the game down while looking for cracks in the defense.
For the most part, there weren't many cracks to find.
The Pacers finally took over the lead with just over two minutes to play but OES was able to kick its offense into a different gear for the final minutes of the game.
OES would go on to lose the championship game to Lincoln in another very close one-goal battle.
It was still a terrific season for the Pacers as the team was anticipated to experience a bit of a letdown after graduating a large and talented group of seniors.
But the team improved with each week and eventually tied for the league title in arguably the most competitive league in the state.
'I'm just so proud of these kids and what they've done. Everyone wrote us off early and then with one injury after another they still came back. I don't think anyone thought we'd end up in the semifinals this year,' Sheinin said.
Needless to say, the Pacers will expect to be in the running for another state title when the season begins next spring.