In every bit as important of a non-conference game as you’ll find at the high school level, Landon (Md.) toughed out a physical, excitable and intense 48 minutes to overcome Gonzaga (D.C.) 7-6 for bragging rights in the nation’s capital.
The Bears’ extensive postgame celebration at Georgetown, one that solidified the game’s meaningfulness and championship atmosphere, made it apparent just how much the win meant to everybody involved in Landon’s program. It gave Rob Bordley’s team their first win over rival Gonzaga since 2011 and provided the Bears with their first 10-0 start since their undefeated Matt Ward-led squad in 2002.
“It feels great… a lot of people love Gonzaga and how they’re the new face of DC lacrosse so I guess that’s not true anymore,” said senior goalie Hunter Sells, a Hopkins recruit. “We wanted this win more than any win we’ve had in a while. Coach [Bordley] said that this game has as much magnitude as any game in the last decade so I’m glad we came out on top.”
An important piece of the Bears’ win, Sells made a number of fantastic stops down the stretch among his 10 total saves. In the final 40 seconds, two Gonzaga attempts pinged off the pipe while a third was stopped by the Hopkins recruit point-blank with just 12 seconds remaining to seal the deal. The close defense in front of him – consisting of seniors Landon McKenzie (Dartmouth), Tom Evans (Navy) and Paul Padalino (Richmond football) as well as sophomore Andrew Fowler – made life difficult for the Gonzaga offense, especially as the Purple Eagles surged back from a 7-5 late in the game.
After Bears middie Ryan Pride (UVA) drew first blood just over two minutes in, Gonzaga’s three first quarter goals were ironically scored by Landon transfers Luke Vassos and Sam Offutt (2g, 1a), who left the Bethesda school after their freshman and sophomore years, respectively. Freshman sensation Joey Epstein caught a feed from Pride off the face-off and buried it at the 2:27 mark in the first quarter, with Gonzaga’s Avery Myers later putting the Eagles’ lead back at two goals with 8:44 until halftime. From there, Landon’s vaunted attack unit continued to thrive, making impactful plays on the ride and moving and finishing the rock with precision.
A crafty finisher who has developed into more of a carrier as a senior, captain Colton Rupp (Cornell) finished an Epstein pass, with Duke-bound lefty sophomore attackman tallying his first of three crucial goals to tie things up. Two minutes later, Rupp assisted on a Kennedy Dunn (Trinity) blast to give the Bears a 5-4 lead going into the half.
The third quarter, which saw an unfortunate knee injury to Pride on a collision, saw the Bears go scoreless, as Gonzaga’s Ridge Slater (Cornell) made his way to the goal and finishing a nifty bouncer past Sells for the Purple Eagles’ one goal of the third stanza.
Continuing to swarm groundballs and play active defense, the shot clock was switched on early in the fourth quarter, though Buller took his man from X under those circumstances to give Landon a 6-5 lead then added another on EMO (assisted by Rupp) a few minutes later. Timmy Monahan’s low-to-high beauty found the net with 4:53 remaining to put the Eagles back within one and creating a stressful final minute for Landon as Gonzaga took possession after possession to try and force overtime. With a determined D in front of him, Sells’ poise in cage helped push the Bears to the big win.
“It was exactly the game that we expected,” said Bordley of the last-minute ending, admitting that Buller’s game-winning goal proved to be way too early for their liking. “Ultimately, it was our goalie. I don’t know how many incredible saves he had. He had a lot of great saves and then some incredible saves there at the end. I’ve said from the beginning that he’s the best goalie in the area if not the entire country.”
The win set off a raucous celebration by the Bears’ student body, who donned black shirts, chanted all game long and helped create a wild atmosphere at a great venue.
Though their D.C. counterparts received more praise and higher preseason rankings, this win further proved that the 2015 Bears are one of the best teams the program’s head since the millennium and will be touch to knock off the rest of the year. On Saturday, they’ll host Coronado (Calif.) – coached by Landon alum Alex Cade – before playing St. Ignatius Prep (Calif.) and archrival Georgetown Prep later in the week. Gonzaga will also face St. Ignatius, the West’s No. 1 team, this upcoming week at Catholic University.