EXETER, NH – “To be honest with you, I thought we blew it,” said Chris Hettler.
The longtime Derryfield School boys lacrosse coach had watched a six goal second-half lead slip away in less than a minute during Sunday’s Division-II championship game.
Competing against top-seeded Portsmouth – the two-time defending champs – at Exeter’s Bill Ball Stadium, Hettler’s Cougars had appeared poised to cruise to the program’s seventh state championship –and first since 2019 – but lost their comfortable 10-4 cushion in a 54-second span, got pushed into overtime and then ultimately emerged 12-11 victors.
“We just made it interesting,” said Hettler. “It’ll be one for the books, definitely one to remember for a long time.”
Following an 8-4 first half, Derryfield extended its lead with two early second half goals, but a little more than halfway through the third quarter, the Clippers swiftly reversed course and closed the gap to five goals with 5:40 remaining in the third quarter.
Fourteen seconds later it was four.
Sixteen seconds after that, the lead was down to three, and 24 seconds after that it was two goals.
And just like that, it was a new game.
“That was unexpected,” said Hettler. “But I (called a timeout and) looked them in the eye, and I told them, ‘we still have the lead, rememberer that, and we need the ball and need some stops.'”
Derryfield was able to slow the Clippers, but they were still able to draw within one heading into the fourth, holding most of the possession and seemingly all the momentum.
“We were actually OK with them having long possessions in their offensive end, especially with the way we were playing defensively, with the way (goalie Parker Lebiedz) was playing,” said Hettler. “I just kept watching (the clock). Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. And I’m like, OK, they’re really not going hard at the goal, we’re really not expending a lot of energy. Obviously, I would have rather had it in (our) offensive end, but they way they were possessing the ball, it gave some of our guys a chance to get their legs back.”
Derryfield managed to keep Portsmouth out of the net for the first two-thirds of the final frame, and then padded their slim lead thanks to an Alex Murray goal with 4:23 remaining in the contest.
That 11th goal proved crucial as the Clippers scored twice in the final minute and 16 seconds to push the game into sudden death overtime.
There, Portsmouth missed an early opportunity and then turned the ball over to Derryfield. And with 1:55 remaining in the first overtime, junior Chili Cabot picked up a loose ball in front of the net, turned and buried the game winner.
“I was going to shoot it righty, but then they got off my hip a little bit, allowed me to put it in my left hand and luckily I could put it far side,” said Cabot.
“Glad I didn’t call timeout there,” said Hettler, who admitted after the game that he was prepared to do so had one of his players picked up the loose ball. Fortunately for the Cougars, he missed the opportunity because Cabot gathered it and fired so quickly.
“Chili has done that three or four times this season,” said Hettler. “He’s just around the ball, he finds the right space and he put it in when he needed to put it in.”
The win avenged last year’s 16-10 loss in the state finale and allowed the Cougars to retake the D-II throne after a three-year title drought that began with a lost 2020 season.
“We had them on the ropes, but that’s the way (the Clippers) played all season. They just don’t quit,” said Hettler. “I’m really proud of my guys tonight, I’m proud of my goalie, Parker, who made stops when he needed to, made some big stops when he needed to (five in the fourth quarter and one in overtime) … and when we needed a stop we got it tonight.”
Portsmouth head coach Chad Vischer gave credit to the Cougars for sustaining his team’s best charge and gutting out the victory.
“I’d rather lose that way than lose by five … (falling) 11-12 in overtime against a team that I think, on paper is better than us,” he said. “We didn’t bury the goal, they buried the goal, you know?”
The victory, of course, was especially sweet to Derryfield’s six seniors, all of whom had earned valuable playoff experience the last couple years but who had yet to hoist the D-II championship plaque.
“I speak for all the seniors here when I say we needed this one. We wanted it,” said Tate Flint, who scored three goals and supplied an assist in the finale. “We came so close last year. Just the heart we all have around this team, we needed to get this win or else we’d have left here with regrets and we didn’t want to do that.”
Flint also won a championship with classmate Ethan Flanagan their sophomore year, when they were competing for D-III Trinity, before both players transferred to Derryfield prior to their junior season.
“When I was younger I didn’t really understand the importance of it, but four years fly by and as a senior I see how important it is to me now,” said Flint. “Coming in as a transfer, I can speak for both me and Ethan when I say this senior class just took us in and treated us like family.”
And as anyone over the age of 35 learned watching network television in the late 1980’s and most of the 1990’s, family matters.
And it was that close-knit group of seniors that paced the team all season, said Hettler.
“All of them lost their freshman year to COVID,” he said, “and we’ve been talking all year about the culture we lost during that time, the year of development, and to get that (winning edge) back again, and for the underclassmen to see that … you build a program, you build a culture and the younger kids feed off that. You know, it’s a very talented group we’re graduating, but they leave a legacy that the guys underneath step up next year.”
Indeed, while the Cougars bid farewell to Flint, Flanagan, Quinn Silvio, Jared Moulton, Dugan Brewer Little and Tyler Lautieri, they’re expected to return many established players, including Lebiedz, Murray, Cabot, junior face-off specialist Logan Purvis and sophomore sniper RJ Proulx, as well as several other key cogs from this year’s championship run.
Game notes: Silvio, Flint and Murray led the Cougars with three goals apiece, Cabot found the back of the net twice and Proulx scored once and supplied two assists.
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