Army men’s lacrosse coach Joe Alberici knew that it would take a strong team effort to beat nationally-ranked Rutgers on Saturday at cold but sunny Michie Stadium.
The offense would have to roll. The defense would have to stiffen. And, as importantly, the team would have to win a majority of faceoffs, gain more groundballs and play better in the goal to beat the No. 8 Scarlet Knights.
It all came together perfectly for the Black Knights (1-1), as they posted a scintillating 14-13 upset victory over Rutgers (2-1) for their first win of the young 2023 campaign and giving many Army fans hope that this year’s squad is as good – or even better – than last year’s 12-4 team that finished second in the Patriot League. Army has now defeated a ranked team in 10 straight years.
“I am really proud of our guys,” said Alberici. “Going into this game, I really thought we would have to play with tremendous toughness to win and these kids did. Rutgers is a very good lacrosse team, with a lot of players back from a national semifinals team last year, and it quite difficult to play that well against them for so long. But our guys did it as a team from the very beginning of the game until the very end.”
Army won the game due to a number of reasons. First, sophomore faceoff specialist Will Coletti won 63% of the 30 faceoffs in the contest, giving Army control of the ball more often than their more seasoned and faster opponent. Second, the Black Knights dominated the ground balls situation and, third, senior goalie Knox Dent, in only his second start, saved 46% of the shots aimed at the net.
“Will Coletti was a big difference for us in the middle in the field,” noted Alberici. “Last year, he was the number one faceoff specialist in the country in percentage amongst freshmen. As a sophomore, we knew we could rely on him more and he showed htat consistency today. He gave us possession after possession.”
Offensively, Army posted a solid and well-rounded performance. Reese Burek had five goals, while Paul Johnson and Jacob Morin had two goals apiece. Freshman Gunnar Fellows also posted two goals. While, fellow plebe Evan Plunkett had another goal and set up a big score with seconds left in the first half when he stole the ball from a Rutgers defender and passed it to Fellows to give the Army a 9-6 edge at the break.
While appreciating the performance of his upper classmen, Alberici is particularly high on the performances of several plebes. “Evan Plunkett is terrific and is quickly proving to be one of the top freshman midfielders I have ever coached here,” he said. “He is so athletic and has that great athletic IQ. He gave us some great defensive stops as well as some offensive juice too. That play right before half was incredible.
“Fellows just goes about his business. He is also a player with a very high IQ lacrosse player. And, his second goal, which came after Rutgers cut the lead to 11-9 and put us up 12-9 was just huge for a freshman player.”
As importantly, Army’s defense, led by Plunkett, AJ Pilate and plebe John Sullivan helped slow down the big Rutgers offense, holding the Scarlet Knights big scorer Ross Scott to just nine shots and five goals. Scott’s potentially game-tying goal hit off the side of the goal bar with seconds left in the contest.
Army was up 12-9 with about 10:45 left in the game. But Rutgers rattled off three goals in less than two minutes to tie the score. Coletti grabbed the next faceoff and raced to the net, and a score, to give the Black Knights a 13-12 lead. With under five minutes left Rutgers again tied the score at 13, but Johnson put Army ahead to stay with 3:54 left in the contest, off a pass from Pilate.
Army takes on Wagner Tuesday at West Point, starting at 3 p.m. and then travels to Macon, Ga. to face Mercer Saturday, starting at noon. Rutgers hosts Loyola of Maryland on Saturday.
“Both Wagner and Mercer are new to our schedule and that gives us another set of obstacles because we do not know their style of play year over year,” Alberici added. “We will start to break Wagner down tomorrow and I know the players are excited about having two games in one week. It is going to be a player’s week.”