CORNING, N.Y. -- Essex Community College will get a chance to shift the junior college spotlight away from Herkimer County today.
Essex won its first National Junior College Athletic Association title in 1991, but the Knights and everyone else in the relatively small world of two-year lacrosse have taken a back seat recently to Herkimer, the upstate New York power that a year ago made it three NJCAA championships in the last five seasons.
The two will meet today (1 p.m.) for the national title at Corning War Memorial Stadium. Essex needed a fourth-quarter rally to overcome Nassau (N.Y.) Community College, 10-8, after Herkimer had pulled away from upstart Harford for a 19-11 victory in the first semifinal.
Like the Lithuanian Olympic basketball team, Essex has a Grateful Dead motif on its warm-up jerseys, and coach Tim Puls' Knights fancy themselves a team "beyond description." Presumptuous was a fitting tag yesterday, because Essex nearly got caught looking past an opponent it had routed last month.
The Knights beat Nassau, 20-11, on Long Island April 10, but the Lions had an 8-6 lead heading into the last nine minutes. Befuddled by a Nassau zone, the potent Essex attack went nearly 32 minutes with one goal, but fortunately for the Knights, Sean Radebaugh came alive.
A Loyola High 1991 graduate who spent a semester at Maryland, Radebaugh came in with 35 goals and 36 assists, but the freshman didn't have a point in the first 51 minutes. He scored twice on feeds from Rife Hilgartner to tie it at 8-8 with 5:55 left, then assisted Cameron Toomey on the game-winner with 2:59 remaining.
"They [Nassau] were packing in the zone and we just weren't moving the ball or looking for the open man," Radebaugh said.
Toomey, a freshman from Australia, had three goals, and Hilgartner (Boys' Latin) had a goal and three assists. On the season, Toomey has 55 goals and 14 assists, and Hilgartner has 36 and 43. The Knights also got a huge game from freshman goalie Stan Rote (John Carroll), who had nine of his 18 saves in the third quarter.
"We didn't take this game as seriously as we should have," Puls said. "We didn't react very well to the situation and it was an ugly win, but now we've got the game we wanted."
In the first semifinal, Jason Ellison got Harford (10-4) a 1-0 lead with 9:36 elapsed, but Herkimer (16-0) scored 33 seconds later ++ and never trailed again. The Governors threatened to blow away the Fighting Owls in the second quarter, but Harford wouldn't buckle and trailed by only 13-8 early in the fourth quarter.
Even though this is only the third year for lacrosse at Harford and the Fighting Owls got 11 goals against a defense allowing an average of just 4.5 per game, coach Frank Mezzanotte didn't want to hear of any moral victories. He's trying to do for the Fighting Owls what he did for Edgewood High, which won three state titles in the 1980s under his guidance.
"We're competing against teams that are recruiting from more high schools than we are," Mezzanotte said, 'but we've got a great bunch of kids who played their buns off."
Mezzanotte is actually going into Pennsylvania and New Jersey for players. Ellison, a sophomore from Mountain Lake, N.J., led the Fighting Owls with two goals and three assists. Herkimer got three goals and four assists from Todd Osadchey, who's headed to Salisbury State.