By Bill Landon
Being down early doesn’t faze the Smithtown East boys’ lacrosse team. And despite the 4-0 lead visiting Connetquot had in the opening round of the Class AA playoffs May 19, the Bulls bounced back for a 12-10 victory to advance to the semifinals.
“That’s kind of been our M.O. this year — we’ve allowed our opponent to jump up on us early in games and these guys have done a good job all year staying together, [being] positive and chipping away at it,” Smithtown East head coach Jason Lambert said. “When we got down 4-0, I said, ‘hey guys, we’ve been here before, we’ve done this before — we’ll come back.’ And with our seniors and the leadership we have here, there’s never panic with this group.”
Smithtown East didn’t find the cage until two minutes into the second quarter, when senior midfielder and co-captain Luke Eschbach slammed home a solo shot. Senior Michael Latini attacked next, with 5:05 left in the first half, to cut the lead in half. Senior faceoff specialist Brian Herber won the ensuing battle at the ‘X,’ and dished the ball to classmate and co-captain Connor Desimone who buried his shot 20 seconds later to pull within one, 4-3.
At the 3:15 mark of the second quarter the Thunderbirds struck again, but so did a lightning bolt, which suspended the game for 30 minutes. Connetquot picked up where it left off when play resumed, to double Smithtown East’s score, 6-3.
“That half hour stop was almost a blessing in disguise,” Lambert said. “It allowed us to gather ourselves, talk to the kids and tell them exactly what we were seeing, and hear what they were seeing.”
Desimone passed to Latini, who on the cut shot the ball behind his back, catching the keeper off guard to make it a 6-4 game.
“I’ve done it in practice and I’ve never tried it in a game,” Latini said. “But I always wanted to try it, and today, it went in.”
After another Herber faceoff win, Latini scooped up the flick, and senior Dominic Pizzulli drilled his shot into the netting as the Bulls trailed 6-5. The four-goal deficit early in the game had little effect on Herber or the rest of his team.
“I was a little nervous,” Herber said. “But I know this team and knew we would definitely come back — we always do.”
With 26 seconds left before the break, Desimone leaped from behind the cage dove in front to bury his shot and make it a new game.
Smithtown East goalkeeper Thomas Harkin, who had eight saves on the day, commended his opponent for the tough battle.
“They brought a lot of ball movement, they moved well inside — they are very good at doing that, but we prepared for that,” Harkin said. “We knew we had to step it up, wake up a bit. We knew the next ground ball, the next pass, the next shot, the next anything, it’s ours.”
Two minutes into the second half, Desimone gave his teammate’s words meaning when he scored his hat trick goal to give his team its first lead, 7-6.
“Our guys have a ton of heart, starting with our goalie,” Desimone said.
Smithtown East’s lead wouldn’t last long though, as the Thunderbirds scored three unanswered goals for a 9-7 advantage with 2:30 left in the third.
Senior Bobby Burns put an end to the Connetquot rally, and Herber’s faceoff win led to the game-tying goal by senior Mike Marino. Marino tied the game again minutes later, 10-10, and the Bulls’ defense stood strong in the final eight minutes, cutting off all lanes to the cage.
“[Anthony] Voelker played great on [Connetquot junior attack George Wichelns],” Herber said. “He’s a big part of Connetquot’s team and [Brian] Cosgrove was playing great off ball, which really slowed them down.”
Desimone passed to Eschbach for the game-winning goal, and Desimone put the game away soon after.
“It all starts in our cage with our goalie Thomas Harkin — he’s been great all year, and our faceoff kid Brian Herber battling giving us chances, giving us the ball, giving us the opportunity to play offense,” Lambert said. “It was a total team effort, but those two guys, they’re the backbone of our team.”
Smithtown East will face crosstown rival Smithtown West in the semifinals May 25 at 6:30 p.m.