Lax advances to state title game

FAIRFIELD -- With 10 seconds remaining in the second overtime, Darien senior Bobby Nolan deftly tucked himself behind the defense and approximately seven feet in front of New Canaan goalie Thomas Carey.

With 5 seconds to go, Nolan received a pass from behind the cage by way of his teammate, Brian Gleason. Barely a second later, with 3.9 on the clock, Nolan instinctively threw the ball toward Carey's feet, put the rubber sphere past the Rams' sophomore goalie and gave Darien a 5-4 double-overtime win over its rival in the semifinals of the Division I state tournament in boys lacrosse.

Second-seeded Darien blew a 3-0 lead in the second half before sophomore Case Matheis scored a hat trick and tied the game at 4 with 4:10 remaining, giving the Blue Wave (18-3) a chance to take the game back.

A rivalry such as this -- with two proud, storied programs -- may not have two better games in its history than what went down at Fairfield Ludlowe High School Tuesday evening.

"I looked up right when we were clearing, and I saw there was only 20 seconds," Nolan said. "We had the poles pressing out on the shorties, and so they got enough pressure to knock it loose. Andrew West made a great clear to Brian Gleason ... and he drew two men and trusted me enough to give it to me for the shot."

Nolan was largely conspicuous for the majority of the game, never factoring in much in the Darien offense or forcing No. 3 New Canaan (17-5) into turnovers.

How ironic, then, that his sneak attack in the waning seconds came when a third overtime seemed inevitable, likely, meant to be.

From the losing end, Rams head coach Alex Whitten saw it in a simple narrative.

"It comes down to double overtime, and we don't make the play in OT, they come down in transition and they make the play. It's as simple as that," Whitten said.

Darien got its chance because senior goalie Andrew West made a save, sprinted out of the cage and started the last offensive possession Darien would have in the game and the last defensive attack New Canaan would get in its season.

"That end of the game was just our leader in the goal coming out, being aggressive, taking it up the field and creating," veteran Blue Wave head coach Jeff Brameier said. "And then our captain (Gleason) having the nerve to go our hard and find our senior D middie (Nolan), who was willing to catch the ball, not bobble it and score."

West was trotting backward toward his cage as the seconds wound down. When Nolan scored, he fell to his knees, then rolled on his back. Soon enough, he was greeted by teammates who were too excited to even think about dropping their sticks.

"It was a mix of pure exhaustion and pure joy," West said. "There's no better feeling. This is the best lacrosse year of my life. I love these guys."

West made two critical stops in the second overtime. New Canaan's Todd Bratches and Ian Knechtle both took high-velocity shots at West, and the Blue Wave goalie, who Brameier says "is the best in the state" stoned each of them.

With 2010 on the line, West had visions of 2009 in his head, still torturing him over a season that ended too soon.

"I was on myself going into that overtime because last year I only saw one shot and I was done against Ridgefield in the FCIACs," West said. "I said, `Not this year.'"

Darien wasn't always in such a vulnerable position Tuesday. Matheis scored the opening goal of the game with 9:03 to go in the first quarter and put another one past Carey with 52.7 remaining in the half to give the Blue Wave a 2-0 lead.

Ninety-five seconds into the third quarter, Henry West put his team up three scores after getting some rare breathing room 10 yards outside the cage.

"In the first half we were anemic on offense," Whitten said. "We weren't doing anything. We weren't handling the ball, we weren't handling their pressure against their defense, and it showed. In the second half we chipped back and chipped back. We started making individual plays, which we needed to have happen."

Cody Newton started New Canaan's run with an assisted strike from Henry Eschrict that came at the 1:10 mark of the third quarter. Newton stood 20 yards out, unguarded, corked back a shot and sent it whizzing past West. With 10:16 to go in the fourth, Eschrict scooped up a loose ball and threw a shot into the twine to give New Canaan life and Darien reason to call a timeout.

Less than a minute later, Bratches came around West's right side and curled a shot in to tie the game. Newton bookended his scoring effort by fooling West on an acrobatic shot at the 7:03 mark. That quickly, the Rams had the lead and the noise coming from their side of the bleachers.

Brameier, who had six assistants helping him prowl the sidelines, said he and his coaches began to overthink the process, and that contributed to New Canaan scoring four unanswered.

"It's one of those games where you have to let your kids play," Brameier said. "I think we got so into calling plays and trying to help them play than just letting it happen, that we didn't really function."

New Canaan's senior long poles on defense could only keep Darien's feisty attack at bay for so long, though, and Brameier made sure to credit the resistance his offense met for the majority of the game.

"Take nothing away from Thomas Carey. That's a sophomore and he's the real deal."

Darien, who was without its primary faceoff guy, junior Brandon Coley, who pulled his hamstring in Saturday's game, was forced to feed off pressure and use a unique approach to what it dealt with against most FCIAC opponents.

For New Canaan, although the loss may have a sting that will last until these two teams meet again next year, the improved record and reputation of the program is what can immediately linger.

"It's still a great year," Whitten said. "We were 17-5, which is better than the 12-8 we were last year. The hardest part about this season is you're going to have 17 seniors leaving. You're sad to see them go but you're excited to see them move on to bigger and better things. I believe the legacy they're leaving behind is a good one."

And for the Blue Wave, who get their chance at yet another state title in Saturday's final against New Fairfield, West said state pride means more than a conference crown.

"The FCIAC, it's always a nice little notch in your belt, but it's never our biggest goal," West said. "Winning state is the best feeling. I've never won an FCIAC, but if we get two state titles, I'd gladly make that trade."