CRANX WIN CHAMPIONSHIP!
WESTFIELD 13 SOUTH HADLEY 12
Back row: Casey Bourdeaux-David John-Nick Hedge-Jim Crean-Ethan Nassar-Ben McCathy-Sam Scarfo-Boz-Matt Chlastawa
Kevin Papineau-Chris Santaniello-Josh Gagnon-Devin Samuelson-Chris Pray-JT Hoyt-Mike Piccin
Front Row: Bob Spano-Ryan Wilson-Connor Samuelson-John Funaro-Dan Balbony-Matt LaCroix-Rich Borsari-Justin Bard
Photos courtesy of George Skovera
FINALLY! It's said in sports that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That a team comprised of players not necessarily with better individual talent, but of a collective group of pieces that each fill an important role, will often succeed against teams having more skillful players. This year's Westfield Cranx lacrosse team seemed to prove that to be true. Finally. It only took 31 years.
Team Cranx beat South Hadley 13-12 to win its first ever 2015 Pioneer Valley Lacrosse League championship in franchise history. After several semifinal losses since the league began in 1984, and a loss in last year's championship game, Westfield played the way that led them to a regular season record of 12-1 and a #1 playoff seed. With stellar goalie and defensive play, face-off domination, and a complementary and unselfish offense that was all about T-E-A-M. It also helps more than a little bit to have the best offensive weapon in the league.
"It's about damn time!” said the aforementioned weapon that goes by the name of Justin Bard. “That's the first thought that came to mind when the game ended.”
Midfielder face-off specialist Matt LaCroix (top left) echoed those sentiments of both exhilaration and relief. “Being able to bring home the first Cranx championship, playing with guys I grew up watching and playing with, is such an awesome accomplishment. This team has so much history behind it and has meant a lot to all who have played. Winning this one is special.”
Special indeed. Especially given the way the game played out, with Westfield playing catch up the entire way. South Hadley had lost the regular season match-up with the Cranx in overtime 11-10, and were out for revenge. Similarly to that first game, the Tigers took control of the game early and led throughout the contest, all the way deep into the fourth quarter. The #2 seeded visitors jumped out on top quickly with the first two scores off two shots. LaCroix put the Cranx on the board with a one man fastbreak goal following a face-off win to make it 2-1. But Westfield played defense most of the rest of the quarter, with Cranx goalie Chris Santaniello (right) settling down and having to make save upon save while the Cranx offense struggled, turning the ball over repeatedly. After trailing 4-1, JT Hoyt gave Westfield their second goal of the game just before the quarter ended.
The second quarter was more of the same. Too many turnovers on the offensive end, and too many shots by the opponent on the defensive end. Not that the Westfield defense was playing poorly—anything but. Led by veterans Mike Piccin, Rich Borsari, and Ethan Nassar, and second year player Connor Samuelson, the longpoles played like they have all year – smart, fundamentally sound, and hard-nosed.
"From the beginning of the year, our D has set the tone in all of our games and dictated the success of our season” said Bard. "They've consistently shut down the other teams' top offensive guys, and always do a great job getting the ball into our offensive zone. They're the rocks.”
Those rocks were needed more than usual again in the second quarter, as South Hadley doubled Westfield's time of possession, and tallied four more times. Fortunately, as sub-par as the Cranx offense performed, they managed to stay within striking distance, scoring three times in the period. Bard, Bob Spano, and rookie Matt Chlastawa each found the net to send the game into halftime with South Hadley leading 8-5.
“We didn't play a very good first half offensively” admitted Bard. “We had to get back to playing team lacrosse and limiting our turnovers.” We needed some spark in the second half, and we got that from a few players, especially Chris Pray.”
Second year midfielder Pray led the momentum change for Team Cranx on the first possession of the third quarter. Moving left to right, Pray fired a laser past the Tiger goaltender to get things started. But that was just the box score portion of Pray's contribution. Clearing the ball, initiating fast breaks, and picking up loose balls keyed a needed Cranx comeback.
“Chris found a way to make all the hustle plays when we needed them most” said LaCroix. He grinded it out on the face-off wing for me, and picked up a huge game changing 50/50 ground ball that led to a fast break and a goal.”
To round out the scoring in the third quarter, LaCroix, Bard, and Chlastawa each tallied their second goal of the game, and Santinello and company did their part again, holding South Hadley to just a single goal. After three quarters, the score was tied at 9-9.
Westfield's momentum was halted temporarily two minutes into the fourth period, when the Tigers struck first to regain the lead 10-9. That score held for another four minutes as both teams failed to strike on their next three possessions. Santaniello made four clutch saves during the span.
“He was unbelievable” said veteran midfielder Ben McCarthy. “ Kick saves, leg saves, saves from point blank range. He played like a brick wall out there.”
An offsides penalty on South Hadley led to a second John Funaro to Chlastawa man-up conversion, as the rookie lefty ripped a shot past the shoulder of the Tiger goalie to tie the game back up at 10-10. Then the tension of the close game, and the good chance that the Cranx were going to fall just short of a championship win for the second straight season, seemed imminent. South Hadley regained their composure, and regained the time of possession battle for the next several minutes. The Tigers tallied twice on consecutive possessions to go up 12-10 with 9:40 remaining.
Chris Pray John Funaro Rich Borsari
“Did I have any doubts we were going to pull out a win?” McCarthy answered afterward, “Not for a second.” If Benny-Mac's positive outlook didn't leave room for any doubts, Bard (bottom left) joined him in at least knowing the Cranx weren't finished yet.
“We did have some struggles during the season because we had some young players and were inexperienced as far as lacrosse IQ" he said, "but we made up for it with our speed and stamina. I knew we'd fight to the end and not get tired.”
The last nine minutes of the game proved that out, and then some. Behind the solid play between the restraining lines by Pray, Sam Scarfo, and longpole midfielders Devin Samuelson and Casey Bourdeaux, Westfield was able to control play and keep the ball out of the defensive end for a good long stretch. It also helped that LaCroix continued to dominate at face-off X, winning the next three battles. Ryan Wilson found Spano for the second time of the game after a slow break from midfield to bring the deficit to 12-11. Retaining possession after the next face-off, it was weaponry time.
“Justin's play speaks for itself” said LaCroix. “He's our best player. When we need a goal he finds a way to make it happen. He can score from anywhere on the field.”
Creating space as only he can, when the league's leading scorer got the ball, he did what he's done all year when the Cranx needed a goal. The result: a game-tying blast to knot the score at 12-12.
But Westfield was not done yet. Continued possession and momentum led to an opening for JT Hoyt (bottom right) to make his mark. To go down as one of those names in Westfield Cranx history to never be forgotten. “He picked the most important game of the season to probably have his best overall game of the year.” said McCarthy. At the 4:05 mark, Chlastawa fired a cross crease pass to Hoyt on the left side, who fired home his second goal of the game to give Westfield its first lead of the night, 13-12. From that point on, the collective effort of all ten men on the field, and tenacious final defensive stands by Nassar, Piccin, and Connor Samuelson to hold off and thwart five more South Hadley shots. Piccin's final loose ball scoop and skyrocket pass to the opposite side of the field while the final horn sounded, sealed the victory. Cranx 13 South Hadley 12. And there was much rejoicing.
Hugs, high-fives, and a celebratory champagne shower followed. And of course, the presentation of the team's first championship trophy.
“Thirty-one years of early exits erased by an unbelievable fourth quarter performance” said McCarthy afterward. “This is a huge weight lifted off the shoulders of not only the players on the field, but for everyone that's ever donned a Cranx jersey.” Names like Flynn, Harrigan, Cavallon, Witalicz, Pierce, Healy, Strycharz, Spagnoli, Richards, Metcalf, Clark, Liptak, Cherry, Moore, Roberts, Burque, Alegretti, Hoffman, and many more alumni greats come to mind.
Bard concurred, “I was happy we got it done for the veterans and alumns, who have been through all the many tough playoff losses, especially for Johnny-Fun and his retirement tour." After team captain Bard was presented with the PVLL championship trophy, he gave it to Funaro, the 31-year veteran. "Take it home with you, " he said. "It's yours."
A first place regular season record of 12-1. A #1 playoff seed. A 3-0 post season record. And an overall record of 15-1. All firsts. And all with a team of guys committed to showing up everyday, taking on individual roles solely for the betterment of the team, and having the will and heart to win with sometimes lesser talent than the competition. A team whose collective whole turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts. That is the 2015 Cranx lacrosse team. The Championship Cranx team. A first. And finally, a best.
SOUTH HADLEY 4 4 1 3
WESTFIELD 2 3 4 4
Goals: Bard 3, Chlastawa 3, LaCroix 2, Spano 2, Hoyt 2, Pray
Assists: Wilson 2, Funaro 2, Chlastawa 2, LaCroix, Bard
Goalie Saves: Santinello 18
Connor Samuelson Justin Bard Mike Piccin
THE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME WAS PLAYED AT THE PINNEY FIELD OF DREAMS, WHERE CORNSTALKS SERVE AS ENDLINES AND DOGS AND GOATS COHABITATE PEACEFULLY..... CRANX ALUMNI ATTENDING THE GAME INCLUDED MIKE BURQUE, MARK CAVALLON AND MATT HOFFMAN..... BOSTON CANNONS PLAYER JOSH HAWKINS PLAYED FOR SOUTH HADLEY..... CRANXMAN BOB SPANO WAS FINED BY THE LEAGUE FOR NOT WEARING A MATCHING UNIFORM DURING THE GAME..... A SPECIAL THANK YOU TO PHOTOGRAPHER GEORGE SKOVERA WHO PROVIDES THE PICTURES SEEN HERE (THE GREAT ONES!). GO TO THE PHOTO ALBUMS SECTION MANY MORE GREAT SHOTS.... A FULL SPREAD OF CRANX CHAMPIONSHIP PICS ARE IN THE AUGUST 14TH EDITION OF THE REMINDER NEWSPAPER..... CLICK ON THE "GUESTBOOK" LINK AT THE TOP RIGHT OF THIS PAGE TO POST ANY COMMENTS YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE.....
The Veterans Ryan Wilson
"A Final Lap"
by John Funaro
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