Matching up against a Goliath of college men’s lacrosse, Army’s Will Coletti had to know that his performance at the faceoff X on Friday night could very well make the difference between the Black Knights going home or moving onto the finals of the Patriot League lacrosse tournament.
And, in the first half of the semifinal played at Boston University’s Nickerson Field, Coletti totally outplayed Lehigh’s Mike Sisselberger, a first-team all-American faceoff specialist in 2021 and a third-team honoree last year, to help the Black Knights to a 12-6 halftime advantage.
The second half, at least much of it, belonged to Sisselberger, a three-time Patriot League faceoff specialist of the year and the holder of the all-time single-season (2021) record for highest faceoff percentage.
The Lehigh fifth-year senior won more than 70 percent of the faceoffs in the second half. His play helped the Mountain Hawks claw within three goals of the Black Knights early in the fourth quarter and create a feeling in the stadium that maybe Lehigh could somehow pull this game out.
But, in the end, it was a battered and hobbled Coletti, a sophomore from Monrovia, Md., who won the faceoff wars, controlling several key matchups at the X late in the game to ensure Army’s 19-13 victory over Lehigh and a spot in the tourney’s championship game Sunday at noon in Boston.
The second-seeded Black Knights will face a resurgent fifth-seeded Loyola (Md.) squad, which upset top-seeded and host Boston University, 12-11, in the other semifinal game. The winner gets an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament, which begins next week.
“These were the two top faceoffs guys in our league this year,” said Army coach Joe Alberici. “Sisselberger was the first team pick and Will was named to the second team. And, I will add that Mike Sisselberger is the most dominate faceoff specialist I have seen in my 18 years as coach at Army.
“But Will did a tremendous job in holding Sisselberger off and played a critical role in our game today. It is a very nuanced position and Will was very quick off the whistle and got more than his share of groundballs (Coletti had 14; Siselberger had nine) in a battle that was as physical as I have ever seen.”
Backed by Coletti’s control at the X in the first half – he won 14 of 19 chances – and a balanced offense attack, the Black Knights went into the locker room looking like they were in full control of the game.
But, Sisselberger’s play and Lehigh’s defense kept Army off the board in the third quarter and almost three minutes into the final quarter, allowing the Mountain Hawks to cut the lead to 12-9. Despite some valiant efforts by Lehigh, that was as close as the Mountain Hawks would come.
That was thanks, in large part, to Army junior Paul Johnson, who scored four goals of his career-high six goals in the fourth quarter, including two in a row to put the Black Knights ahead, 14-9.
“Paul had the most important goals of the game,” Alberici said. “They had shut us down for more than a quarter and Paul took some feeds left-handed and scored. He played great today; really, really well.”
Johnson, who tied a Patriot League tournament record with his six goals, thought it was a team win. “It was a great effort by everyone,” the attacker from Bellevue, Wash. said. “They put a lot of pressure on us and we had a little trouble getting the ball pass the midfield line. But we made adjustments and it worked out for us.”
Johnson noted that Coletti’s gritty performance also opened up the Army offense, particularly in the first half. “Everyone knows who Mike Sisselberger is and what he can do,” Johnson said. “Will played a scrappy game today and really came through for us. We were able to generate some offense off of his play.”
Now the only thing standing between Army and its first NCAA tournament bid since 2019 is Loyola and no one is taking the Greyhounds for granted. Army, now 11-3 on the season, defeated Loyola, 10-5, at Michie Stadium in late March.
“They are not the same team we saw earlier in the year,” Johnson said. “They are much improved with a scary offense that has a lot of weapons, great passing and a lot of creative players on their team. We are going to have to be really prepared if we are going to beat them on Sunday.”