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Nothing's Easy As Blue Wave Laxmen Top Wilton, 12-9 In Semi's

Posted Thursday, June 01, 2006 by George Albano, Darien Times
Jeff Brameier has been coaching lacrosse at Darien High School long enough to know there's no such thing as an easy game.

Not against Wilton. Not in the post-season.

Sure, the Warriors aren't quite the same powerhouse the last few years as they have been the past few decades. But their program is still rich in tradition and they've still won more FCIAC and state championships than any other team.

Which is why Brameier, not to mention most of his players, were not that surprised when Wilton gave the powerful Blue Wave all it could handle in Tuesday night's FCIAC semifinals at Norwalk High School.

Even after beating the Warriors by a whopping 13 goals during the regular season, the Darien contingent expected nothing less than an intense battle when the two rivals met.

Which is exactly what the top-seeded Blue Wave got, too, as they rallied from an early deficit, took control, and then held on to finally beat the fifth-seeded Warriors 12-9 and advance to tonight's 7:30 final, on Thursday, June 1.

Darien will be looking to win its third straight FCIAC championship when it returns to the same Norwalk High field to meet another old rival, New Canaan. The third-seeded Rams beat No. 2 Greenwich 9-8 in the first game of Tuesday night's semifinal doubleheader.

Darien, ranked fifth in the country, improved to 17-1 overall and 15-0 against Connecticut opponents. But the three-goal margin the Blue Wave beat Wilton by was the closest game it's had against any team in the state.

Wilton certainly looked nothing like the team that lost to Darien 17-4 back in April.

"I think you're always going to expect a different team the second time around," Brameier said. "That's the nature of teenagers and the nature of sports, particularly against a team you beat easily the first time you played. The mental preparation for the team that got beat is going to be a little more concentrated than the team that won.

"It's just hard to convince kids when they beat a team as soundly as we did the first time we played Wilton that it's not going to be that easy the next time you play."

"It's definitely a factor," agreed senior attack Whit McCarthy, who had two goals and a pair of assists for the Wave. "We knew it was Wilton and we knew it was the FCIAC semifinals, but still in the back of your mind you know you beat them 17-4. Maybe they'll score a couple of more goals, but no way do you think it's going to be a three-goal game."

But even if Darien was guilty of being a bit complacent, it wasn't the only thing, according to Brameier, that made the rematch a lot closer.

"Wilton is much improved," he said. "When we got them the first time, we were clicking on all cylinders and they didn't have any answers. They were a young team in certain areas and inexperienced in many spots. But now they've had a whole season and some guys have really stepped up for them."

Like Peter Johnson, who scored five goals and assisted on two more to spark the upset-minded Warriors.

"We definitely expected them to play us a lot tougher this time," All-American goalie Chris Madalon said. "We knew they were a capable team."

"Especially in a playoff game," McCarthy added. "We knew Wilton was not going to let us walk all over them."

Instead, the Warriors adjusted to Darien's zone defense much better this time, and were not only able to maintain possession early, but score the game's first two goals.

"I was definitely a little nervous," McCarthy admitted. "I didn't expect it to be like the first game we played when we won 17-4. Of course, this was the playoffs and we knew they were going to come out hard. But we all thought we were going to score first and get the jumpstart on them.

"Then when they scored those two early goals, the defense was a little shaky and a little nervous. We weren't really sure what to do."

One player who wasn't nervous, however, was fellow senior attack Cooper MacDonnell, the Wave's all-time leading goal scorer with 153 to date.

"No, I wasn't real nervous," he said. "I've been through that plenty of times. I knew it would be tight and that they would really come to play. I knew it would be a tough game throughout.

"But we hadn't gotten the ball yet," he added. "Once we got the ball, we turned it on."

That they did as the Blue Wave finally gained possession and scored on its first six shots to turn that 2-0 deficit into a 6-2 lead.

Madalon was brilliant in net for Darien during that run, making five saves in the first quarter as he stopped freshman Peter McMahon with 30 seconds to go, and then denied a backhanded shot by Johnson at the buzzer.

"He's been our leader the last three years," Brameier said. "He's been just phenomenal. We kind of expect big saves from him and he usually doesn't disappoint."

And Madalon's play on the defensive end seemed to spark the DHS offense at the other end of the field.

"I think everyone just started clicking," Madalon said. "Everyone came down and nailed their shots. That gave us momentum and carried us on to the win."

"We responded with six unanswered goals and we got into that comfort zone," Brameier said. "We never got out of it after that, either. We went up 6-2 and never fell out of the lead. We didn't have the win under control until the final whistle, but we never gave up the lead."

Sam Spillane finally got Darien on the board, while consecutive goals by McCarthy, off assists from Cooper and Ashton Hotchkis, gave the Wave a 3-2 lead. Tim Hamernick from Cooper, and Hotchkiss from McCarthy made it 5-2, before Cooper's unassisted goal capped the six-goal outburst.

Wilton proved to be resilient, however, and three straight goals by the Warriors cut the lead back to one at 6-5. But Hotchkiss scored his second goal off an assist from Hamernick, and then assisted on Spillane's second goal to give Darien an 8-5 halftime lead.

And when MacDonnell scored his second goal early in the third period, the Wave stretched its lead to 9-5. Wilton came back with two goals, but MacDonnell and Hotchkiss both completed their hat tricks to make it 11-7 going into the fourth quarter.

The final period was not a sharp one for the Blue Wave, who took three penalties, got called for off-sides twice and too-many-men once, while committing a number of other mental mistakes.

But Wilton couldn't take full advantage, scoring only two goals in the period, while Nick Heitz scored Darien's final goal unassisted.

"We didn't play as well defensively as we would've liked," Brameier said. "We took a lot of penalties and Wilton did a good job of slowing the ball on its possessions. That's going to be the mindset of a lot of teams we play. With our offense, teams are going to try to hold the ball and frustrate us. We're a team that likes to run and gun, but if you don't have the ball you can't run."

Despite Wilton's slowdown tactics, Darien still finished with a 37-26 edge in shots. Most of that can be attributed to an 18-6 edge in faceoffs by the duo of Andrew MacMannis and Colin Delaney.

"We clearly won a percentage of the faceoffs," Brameier said. "We won six of eight in the first period, five of six in the second, four of six in the third, and three of four in the fourth. That's an 18-6 advantage and that was the key. If you're not winning those faceoffs, you're not getting the extra possessions. And in a three-goal game, that's 12 more possessions. That was the difference in the game.

"My hat's off to Wilton and coach (Paul) McNulty," Brameier added. "He's a a good friend and a class act. I'm happy we won, but I'm happy for him his kids are playing great and they can make a run in the state tournament. We're in opposite brackets so we can see them again in the state finals."

As for the immediate future, the Blue Wave will face a familiar foe tonight when they play New Canaan, another team they beat earlier this season 13-7.

"New Canaan did the same thing to Greenwich," Brameier noted. "They lost to them during the season and then beat them in the semifinals. They're on a roll and they're playing well right now."

"New Canaan is always a big game," Madalon added. "They are our biggest rival and we want to go out there and play our best. In the past they've had teams not as good as ours, but upset us."

"It's a huge game," MacDonnell agreed. "New Canaan always comes to play in the FCIACs. It was the same thing last year. It's gonna be a good game and I can't wait to play them."

Copyright 2006 by Hersam Acorn newspapers

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