Certainly it is a heated rivalry. For sure it’s rabid fans, a packed house, intense coaches and two of the best lacrosse teams in the state. But it the end, it’s just a great way to spend a Saturday night. In the morning it probably feels a little more great for one team than the other, but everyone who attended has to admit they had a great Saturday night.
“The Jungle” has got to be the toughest field in Washington for opponents to come in and win. Unofficially, I couldn’t find a regular season home loss by the Islanders since April of 2007 when Bainbridge came in and did it. And before that a 2006 win by the Drew Snider/Caldwell Rohrbach-led Garfield Bulldogs was the last time Mercer Island lost a regular season home game. It is a tough place to play for all the right reasons.
Even before we hear the bagpipes announcing the team, everyone drinks in the pageantry of the night. It was a clear, super-moon-ish evening, Dave’s BBQ was wafting around and each side had a couple of hundred students yelling, taunting and harassing the other side. This is what Washington lacrosse should always be like.
I, for one, was filled with anticipation about the evening. Even during the Star-Spangled Banner, I kept looking around, nervously waiting for the big event to begin. Yes, I have to admit, while the rest of the crowd was honoring our country, I was looking for…the streakers. I can’t help it; I draw comfort from the traditions of the game. When I come to a Bellevue/Mercer Island game I expect to see good lacrosse, and naked daredevils.
The good lacrosse came first, as Simon Jenkin won the opening faceoff for Bellevue. The Wolverine offense seems to be still finding its way, trying to balance their talented attackmen with consistent middie production. Tonight they’re suffering without Blake Samuel, their four-year starter who is too sick to suit up.
Eric Haehl puts the Boys in Blue ahead 1-0 with a big rip from 11yds out past MI goalie Carlos Barrios (more about him later.) The Men in Maroon have recently welcomed the return of their senior attackman Zach Stickney from injury, and tonight he grabs a rebound that caroms off Bellevue keeper Austin Boyd’s hip bone (more about him later) and he dunks it over the top for the equalizer.
Cole Johnson quickly answers for Bellevue, and a few minutes later, Hank Bethke intercepts a clear from Barrios at the 35 yard line and races ahead of him back to the now empty net and puts Bellevue up 3-1. It will prove to be the only time in the game when either team was up by more than one goal. Conor Bernal, all-everything midfielder, crosses through the middle and finds twine with his left hand and the fans go wild screaming “CB7!” The quarter ends with the Wolverines ahead 3-2, but the clock expires, Bellevue LSM Sam Leggett delivers a big hit that was initially ruled legal, but a late flag reverses the call.
As the 2nd quarter starts, Mercer is man up, yet Boyd stones a shot from Stickney in close, on his way to a season-high 22 saves. At the other end, Barrios does the same thing on a wraparound attempt from Bethke. The MI keeper was stellar all night, and while his stats weren’t available at press time, he had to be around the same number of rejections. Both goalies were the story tonight as the game wouldn’t have been near as close if either of them had a pedestrian game. Additionally, Barrios held the fans’ attention by running his clears up the field, often ending 60 or 70 yards from the cage before passing off to someone with more nimble stick skills. It was a captivating strategy, to say the least.
With just under ten minutes left in the half, the Islanders knot the score on a pass from Hayden Reisman who feeds Grant Preisler, chucking it in from 10 yards out. Mercer is running inverted, their middies down low and their attackmen up high, which draws the talented Wolverine long poles away from the net. Meanwhile the Islander defenders are laying the lumber to Bethke, Johnson and Drew Douglas, the Wolverine attackmen. Their aggressive play is backed up with great footwork and clairvoyant slides as the Wolverines are unable to dodge much from X.
Eventually though, Johnson hits Bethke with a quick feed to the right island where he buries it in the top of the goal, to put Bellevue up 4-3. Minutes later, Barrios saves a huge shot off-stick high. Bellevue rides aggressively leaving him no choice but to run the ball up the left side and across midfield. The Wolverines pounce on him and the ball pops out and a scrum ensues. After much pushing and shoving, a loose ball push is called on Bellevue. Bernal picks the ball up on the quick restart and runs to cage underneath the defenders. His shot ricochets off Boyd’s ankle just inside the far pipe solo with three seconds left in the half. The period ends with the two teams tied at 4, and the crowd sits down to catch their breath.
But we’re instantly on our feet again as suddenly the pageantry continues. Four brave streakers enter the field from the south wearing three masks and a spectacular Darth Vader helmet. They gallop the 100 yards to the north, which has to be difficult if you’re sporting Luke’s father’s headgear. Everyone holds their breath as they make the death-defying climb over the top of the chain link fence, dangling, as it were, precariously at the top for an instant. I get all misty-eyed at the traditional ritual and majesty this game inspires.
The teams trade goals in third quarter, Mercer on a wraparound by Peter Mahoney, and Bellevue’s Drew Douglas from 15 on a feed from Bethke. Bellevue is dominating the time of possession, but the Islander defense keeps them from finishing any shot accurately. Then with three minutes left to go, the Islanders go man up. Grant Preisler finds Bernal who buries it to give Mercer Island the lead again, 6-5. But quickly, MI is called for a slash and Jenkin scoots it low past Barrios to bring the teams even at sixes going into the fourth quarter.
Not to keep weeping over this, but this is a great moment for Washington lacrosse. A tie game between two good teams with only 12 minutes left to play. Students ramp up the cheering, chanting and heckling, the parents expound loudly on their game strategies, and the players simply catch their breath and cinch ‘em up. What could be better?
The final stanza begins and tension grows as the minutes shrink. With four minutes gone the Islanders draw a flag as Bellevue commits a slash. With the flag down, Mercer carefully crafts a shot which they let fly from 12 yds out between the hash marks. Shooting away from Boyd’s stick, he still gets a glove on it, keeping it out of the net but sending it high into the air in front of the cage. Bellevue seems to pause, waiting for the whistle to blow, stopping play and enforcing the penalty. But Mercer’s Stickney alertly catches the rebound and puts it in the back of the net. 7-6 for the Maroon men with 11 minutes left in the game.
Now the Islanders start to own the time of possession, forcing the Wolverine defense to play hard. Finally, Bethke dodges solo from behind the net and ties it up at 7. Mercer valiantly regroups and puts a frontal assault on the cage, trying to score one last time and close the door. Conor Bernal fights hard against Bellevue longpole Andrew Matthews, who makes him earn every yard of progress. But Bernal gets his hands free just in front of the crease and instantly shoots. Boyd gobbles it up, releases a quick clear and Bellevue calls timeout with five minutes left to play and the ball in their offensive box.
I’m unsure what play Coach Baumann drew up in the huddle, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t one where Cole Johnson gets tied up by Mercer’s Allen Cho’s tough defense just above the goal line. Cho clamped down hard on Johnson’s left arm, but the right one was still free. Johnson somehow nets a spectacular one-armed shot to give Bellevue the lead for the first time since the 2nd quarter and half of the stands erupts in cheering. 8-7 Bellevue and time winding down.
But the Islanders didn’t get this home field advantage by quitting when they fall behind. Bernal grabs the horns and leads the offense in their efforts to tie. They draw a flag against the Wolverines and go man up with under three minutes to play. The Wolverine defense, though, is impenetrable and Boyd saves a simple shot from the outside. However, the Islanders ramp up their ride and force a 50 yrd clear across midfield, which they disrupt and gain the ensuing groundball. With 1:15 left on the clock, they storm the castle one more time.
But Boyd makes his 22nd save 5-hole and Mercer has to drop back to feverishly ride again. They force Boyd into another 50 yd clear but this time he drops a dime to an open Leggett and the Wolverines are able to kill the clock from there. Time expires and the students rush the field to join the celebrating throng.
The Wolverine fans may argue, but I still think Washington lacrosse was the big winner tonight. The rivalry drew over 400 students, many of whom don’t normally follow lacrosse. Plenty of adults and alumni attended and left talking about the excitement of the evening and asking when the next game was. It was certainly a big win for Bellevue, but ultimately, they’re likely to face the Islanders again in a playoff game that will be much more important than this one. And the Islanders certainly should have plenty of confidence that next time the outcome could easily be different. No one closed the book on anyone in this game; it was merely the latest chapter in what is continuing to be a great season.