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Paul Johnson’s return, goal sparks Army lax over Navy

Army senior attacker Paul Johnson has not played in a men’s lacrosse game in nearly a year. 

After breaking his wrist during the Patriot League post-season tournament in late April last year, Johnson has sat out all of the current campaign with a nagging lower back injury. 

As recently as two weeks ago, Army coach Joe Alberici said he had no idea if or when Johnson, who scored 28 goals last season, would be returning to the field of play.

On Saturday, in front of 10,400 fans at Michie Stadium, Johnson made his return to action against Navy in the third quarter of a slugfest between the archrivals. About five minutes later, Johnson scored his first goal of the year with an incredible effort off a pass from Ryan Sposito to put the Black Knights ahead 8-7 and spur five straight scores that resulted in a 13-8 victory over the Midshipmen in a crucial Patriot League matchup. 

The victory moved No. 12-ranked Army (9-2) into a bizarre six-way tie for first place in the Patriot League with Navy, Boston University, Colgate, Lehigh and Loyola at 4-2, with each team having two games left. Six of the league’s nine teams qualify for the Patriot League postseason tournament in early May, with the winner getting an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament later in the month.

For a time, during Navy’s four-goal run in the second quarter and a hectic, but scoreless third quarter, no one could be sure if Army would prevail in the contest. Navy tied the game at 7-7 with 11:09 in the game on a Max Hewitt goal. 

That set the stage for Johnson’s score, which gave the Black Knights a lead they would never surrender. Johnson, who hails from Bellevue, Wash., was just happy to get the opportunity to play again after so much time recuperating from the two injuries. And, he was quick to note that a stellar defensive performance that held Navy to just eight goals and 19 saves by Army goalie Sean Byrne made the real difference in the game. 

For his Army teammates, coaches and fans at rainy Michie Stadium, Johnson’s score was just what the doctor ordered to fend off the Midshipmen and end a nearly 29-minute Army scoring drought that allowed Navy to tie the game 7-7 after trailing 7-2 midway through the second quarter. 

“I think it comes down to being on the field with my friends and playing the game I love and get to share the moment with my friends,” Johnson said, who added that he started to feel good in practice during the week after working with the coaching staff. “To be able to contribute was great and I know that this team has been great and a lot of guys have stepped up here and there. It’s great to finish my career on a high note. I am really happy about it.”

But teammate and fellow classmate Reese Burek, who had one goal and three assists in the game, was a bit more adamant about Johnson’s contribution on the field and with his teammates’ mojo.

“I think it is special to see Paul back out there and, especially, to get a goal,” said Burek. “We know how hard he has been working with rehab. So, when we saw him score, it was special for all of us and gave us a little motivation and energy for us to keep it going.”

Alberici agreed, noting that Johnson only started to practice in pads two weeks ago and practiced in abbreviated contact drills just twice during the last week.

“Last year, he was an integral part of our success and just an incredible player,” Alberici added. “To put you up in the fourth quarter is a big deal, but for Paul to do it, it is just a little extra punch to it, because we watched how much he has been laboring and how frustrating this injury has been. It was a big moment.”

There were other heroes for Army too. Faceoff specialist Will Coletti dominated the fourth quarter at the X and helped to keep the Navy offense off the field after Johnson’s score, which even caught the attention of Navy coach Joe Amplo, who said he was extremely impressed with the sophomore efforts in the final quarter. And, sophomores Evan Plunkett and Gunnar Fellows joined junior Jackson Eicher with three goals each. 

“It is a special game played by special men and I feel fortunate and feel great for our guys to come out victorious,” said Alberici, whose team plays at Bucknell Friday. “It was an incredible effort and these guys played with great poise and great determination and incredible perseverance throughout the season. Today was just another one of those days and they did it on the biggest stage and the biggest game of the year.” 

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