So much was at stake for Navy yesterday against Princeton at M&T Bank Stadium. A berth in the NCAA men's lacrosse championship game, for starters, but everyone in the program knew it went deeper than that.
They knew that all around the globe, in bunkers and on aircraft carriers, in deserts and in jungles, men and women in uniform were waiting for the score. The Navy lacrosse team had come to symbolize something bigger during its tournament run, and though all that hope could have been a burden, it was instead perfect inspiration.
The Midshipmen rode those emotions to an 8-7 victory against the Tigers before an NCAA lacrosse-record crowd of 46,923, relying more on toughness and togetherness than talent in the closing moments.
For the second straight week, sixth-seeded Princeton (11-4) had a chance to come from behind and steal a close game, but Navy goalie Matt Russell made the biggest save of his career, stopping a shot by Peter Trombino with eight seconds on the clock. Russell heaved the ball downfield as time expired, giving the second-seeded Mids (15-2) their first appearance in the national final since 1975.
A year ago, Navy was 6-7 and missed the tournament. But the Mids will try to win the academy's first NCAA lacrosse championship tomorrow against Syracuse. The Orange defeated Johns Hopkins, 15-9, in the other Division I semifinal.
"I'm very happy for our players, and obviously for all the troops that are deployed overseas," said Navy coach Richie Meade, his eyes welling up with tears. "They're always in our thoughts and prayers. ... This morning at breakfast, [former Navy player] Clint Burke - who ran an operation the evening before the invasion in Iraq - talked to the whole team about confidence, about courage and about making sure you supported your friends [and] teammates."
Before the game, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who grew up in Annapolis, also addressed the team and touched on the themes of unity and brotherhood.
Every Midshipman, as well as Meade and his staff, wore a patch on his shoulder to honor the 1st Marine Corps Division, which is stationed in Iraq. The theme of togetherness was evident in Navy after a rocky first half. The Mids took a 5-4 lead after getting two goals apiece by Graham Gill and Ben Bailey, but Princeton kept it close thanks to two goals by midfielder Drew Casino.
Russell, who has been one of the best goalies in the country this year, wasn't seeing the ball well at the start of the game, and the Tigers took advantage, setting picks and ripping outside shots past him. Russell had just one save heading into the locker room, and the pace of play was slow and deliberate. Despite winning nine of 11 faceoffs, Navy was letting Princeton control the tempo, the same mistake Maryland made a week ago when the Tigers got two goals in the final two minutes of regulation in a 9-8 overtime win.
"The team was all behind me, and I said to myself at halftime, `You know, this is why you're here. You've got to turn it on,'" Russell said. "I think I bounced back, and to the team's credit, they bailed me out. ... We're here to win."
Princeton tied it at 5 on a third-period goal by Ryan Boyle (Gilman), but Navy's offense responded. The Mids got back-to-back scores from Joe Bossi and Billy Looney, which gave Navy some breathing room and fired up the heavily partisan crowd.
"When we would score, I think there was about 200 people cheering," said Boyle, who had a goal and three assists. "When Navy would score, the whole stadium was cheering. ... You hate to lose, but if you're going to lose you want to lose to a deserving team, and Navy was."
Princeton still wouldn't go away. Midfielder Mac Bryson made it 7-6 with 9:44 left on an assist by Boyle, and Jason Doneger nearly tied it on the next possession when he got an open look at the goal from 10 feet out. But Doneger's blast hit the left post, and the ball ricocheted halfway out to midfield.
It turned out to be the game's biggest momentum swing. Navy midfielder Thomas Morris scooped the ball on the run and fired a pass to Ian Dingman upfield. Dingman skipped it to Jon Birsner, who beat Tigers goalie Dave Law for the eventual game-winner with 8:33 left.
"You love the pipe when it helps you, and you hate it when it doesn't," said Princeton coach Bill Tierney. "We were up against a lot today. You not only felt like the lacrosse world but the country was [rooting] against you."
Navy needed to dig deep to hang on, especially after Trombino scored with 4:59 left to make it 8-7. The Mids tried to run out the clock, but they gave the ball back to Princeton with 33 seconds left when Gill shot the ball at the Tigers' unguarded goal - Law got caught outside the crease trying to apply additional pressure - and hit the post.
"My heart just kind of sank," Gill said.
Princeton put the ball in Boyle's hands on the final possession, but it was knocked loose by a defender. Trombino came up with it after a scrum in front of the goal, but Russell saw his shot the entire way.
"We know the whole world is watching us," said Bossi, one of eight Navy seniors. "From guys in Iraq to guys in Nigeria. Coach [Meade] gets so many e-mails from guys all around the world, and so many lacrosse alumni that would love for us to win a national championship. For us to do that would be awesome."
Princeton 2 2 1 2 - 7
Navy 3 2 2 1 - 8
Goals: P-Bryson 3, Casino 2, Boyle, Trombino; N-Gill 2, Bailey 2, Looney, Reel, Bossi, Birsner. Assists: P-Boyle 3, Hayes, Robinson, Sullivan; N-Looney, Reel, Dingman. Saves: P-Law 8; N-Russell 5.
TOMORROW'S TITLE GAME
Matchup: Navy (15-2) vs. Syracuse (14-2)
Site: M&T Bank Stadium
Time: 2:30 p.m.