PITTSBORO — As time slowly trickled off the clock, every aspect of the game became magnified.
Each shot was a potential game-winner, each save a game-salvager.
Every turnover felt disastrous, while every missed opportunity was soul-crushing.
And, after nearly 10 minutes of scoreless lacrosse, Ryan Benevides found his moment, slicing a shot into the net to carry his Bulldogs into the third round.
For No. 8 Northwood, Benevides’ goal with 4:43 left to play may not have marked the official end to the Chargers’ season in their second-round NCHSAA 1A/2A/3A men’s lacrosse playoff game against No. 9 Williams last Thursday night, but it sure felt like it.
“He’s just a phenomenal player,” Mike Kuczkowski, the Bulldogs’ fifth-year head coach, said of Benevides after a jubilant post-game celebration. “We knew that they were going to lock down a couple of our players, so some of the other guys had to step up. And that’s exactly what they did.”
For most of the game, the Chargers locked down two of the Bulldogs’ top scorers — senior Matthew White (averages 3 goals per game) and Benevides (2 G/G) — holding them to just two goals combined through three quarters.
But they weren’t going to contain them forever.
A little over a minute after Benevides banged in the go-ahead score, he struck again on a fast break opportunity, firing off a shot in transition and getting it past junior goalie Kyler Armstrong in what felt like the blink of an eye.
If his initial fourth-quarter goal was the dagger, his second was a twist of the knife.
Northwood took its scoring drought into the locker room, finishing the final 17 minutes, 30 seconds of the game without putting the ball in the net.
After a thrilling two-goal defeat, the Chargers had been eliminated from the postseason, upset by their conference foe.
“Sometimes, it’s just the way the ball bounces,” Randy Cox, the Chargers’ head coach, said following the loss. “They’re a good team, we’re a good team. They want it, we want it. They’re fighting, we’re fighting. And someone has to win and someone has to lose. The boys fought, they fought to the end, but it’s just the way sports work.”
Entering last Thursday’s playoff game, the Chargers and Bulldogs were even in the season series, 1-1, with each team scoring 16 combined goals between the two matchups.
Northwood’s win came on March 8, when the Chargers earned a 10-8 road victory, but a little less than a month later, they fell to the Bulldogs by way of an 8-6 slug-fest on April 1.
Each time these two teams get together, an easy win is out of the question.
Hence the Bulldogs’ need for a come-from-behind miracle to advance to the next round.
“I think we’re evenly matched from a player standpoint,” Cox said when asked about the fierce, close games his team’s had with Williams this season. “When you look at it across the board, I’d like to think our 10 on the field are better than their 10, but their 10 played pretty well (tonight), so it can go either way.”
Both teams have a couple of attackers that statistically stand above the rest.
For the Chargers, it’s juniors Taylor Laberge (4 goals per game) and Will Smith (3 G/G), while the Bulldogs have White, Benevides and, of course, senior Sam Haverstrom (4 G/G).
Haverstrom gave the Chargers fits all night long, tallying a game-high 5 goals, nearly all of which came when the Bulldogs were trailing.
If they needed a pick-me-up, Haverstrom was there to provide it.
“Sam’s not only the captain,” Kuczkowski explained, “he’s the backbone of this (team).”
He scored the game’s first goal just two minutes in, firing off a quick left-side shot that whizzed right by Chargers senior goalie Robbie Delgado and pounded the back of the net to give Williams a 1-0 lead.
He’d proceed to knock in both of the Bulldogs’ first-quarter goals, keeping things even with the Chargers at 2-2 after they scored two goals in 58 seconds — one each from senior Pierce Cook and junior Jason Walden — to take hold of a 2-1 advantage.
Despite each squad’s offensive starpower, the rubber match was nothing short of a defensive dogfight.
The effects were seen early on, when Laberge and Smith struggled to make any sort of goal-scoring impact in the first quarter, despite getting their fair share of opportunities.
However, the Bulldogs’ defense having its sight set on the Chargers’ top weapons gave way to some of Northwood’s more unlikely heroes — like Cook and Walden — to provide the firepower.
Walden, who averaged around a goal per game this season, scored a team-high 3 goals in the playoff loss, tied with Laberge, as he benefitted as Northwood’s third option.
But in the second quarter, Smith led the way in a scoring barrage that gave the Chargers their first multi-goal lead.
To start the period, Northwood sophomore attacker Carson Fortunes slowed the game’s pace as he stood near midfield with the ball in his stick, surveying his options. The Bulldogs’ defenders waited for nearly a minute before, out of the blue, junior Will Johnson burst across left-midfield, received a pass from Fortunes and bullishly forced his way toward the net, catapulting a shot past Williams goalie Tristan Gallovich for the first goal of the quarter to put the Chargers ahead, 3-2.
Smith scored the next two goals for Northwood, including one off of a man-up opportunity following two slashing penalties on White, then another where he miraculously got his own rebound after Gallovich blocked his shot, performed a quick spin move and scored from the right side of the net.
With mere seconds to go before halftime and the Chargers holding firm on a 3-goal lead, 6-3, Haverstrom scored to give the Bulldogs life with 14.1 seconds left, sending them into the break on a high note.
The third quarter was one of momentum shifts and blown leads.
Laberge, as part of his 3-goal third period, scored a commanding point off of the opening face-off just 21 seconds into the quarter, erasing the damage Haverstrom had done before the half and giving the Chargers both a 7-4 lead and the momentum.
But, in shocking fashion, Williams answered with three goals in 67 seconds — including one on an interception that led to an easy fast break — to tie the game at 7 apiece.
The quick shift in momentum didn’t seem to faze the Chargers, however, with Laberge and Walden teaming up to score a pair of goals in just six seconds of game time, followed by a beautiful pick play by Walden that led to a wraparound goal by Laberge about 90 seconds later, giving Northwood a 10-7 lead with 5:30 to play in the third.
Then, the Chargers went dark.
For the rest of the game, Northwood wouldn’t be able to find the net as they watched the Bulldogs’ big three — Haverstrom, White and Benevides — score a combined four goals to put the Chargers away.
As became typical of the third period, Haverstrom, White and senior Aidan Walsh each put one in, evening the game at 10-10 with 3:30 left in the third, just two minutes after Laberge’s final point.
Next came the defense-heavy fourth quarter, concluding with Benevides’ game-sealing goals and a plethora of missed shots by the Chargers.
“There were a couple of goals that we should have maybe stopped, we didn’t, and a couple of goals we maybe should have scored, so I don’t think (the loss) sits with one element of the game,” Cox said. “I think we hit three or four pipes, where if we don’t hit the pipe, it’s a goal and that’s a momentum shift. … We had opportunities, it could have turned out different, but it didn’t.
“It’s frustrating as a coach,” he continued. “I think the other coaches are equally as frustrated, I know the players are frustrated because they wanted to be on the other end of this so that we could play whoever’s up next and take a run at a state championship, but it’s the playoffs and everyone comes to play.”
On the Chargers’ side, this game is defined by the team’s heartbreaking collapse as they blew three separate three-goal leads en route to a second-round elimination.
But the way Cox sees it, it’s a learning opportunity.
With just four graduating seniors on the roster, Cox said he hopes that this loss — no matter how agonizing — is what his team needs to make them better, stronger lacrosse players next year.
“We’ve got a young squad, we’ve got a lot to look forward to,” Cox said. “It’s all part of growing and maturing. Those juniors that are leaders on the team, two of them are captains. They’re going to feel this and carry it with them into next year. … I’m so proud of our boys, they have nothing to hang their heads about. They should feel good about what they accomplished this year.”
Northwood ends the season with an 11-6 record (9-3 in conference), good for second place in the Central/Mid-Carolina 1A/2A/3A conference.
Williams (11-8, 6-6 in conference) will face off against the No. 1 Orange Panthers (15-2, 11-0 in conference) on Tuesday in the third round of the 1A/2A/3A playoffs. (This game will be played after the News + Record’s press deadline.)
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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