(Photo Courtesy of Sacred Heart Athletics)
This time last season, the Sacred Heart Pioneers were 1-7 and on their way to ending the year with a 1-12 record (0-8 NEC). Just two weeks ago, some could say that the Pioneers might be heading down a similar path as they held a 1-3 record and were coming off losses to Fairfield and Providence.
Each of those two aforementioned losses came by just an average of 3.5 goals. The Pioneers put up strong fights in both, especially in the second half, before either not being able to finish or letting the opposition get hot at the wrong time.
Now, two weeks removed from that two-game losing streak, the Pioneers have seemingly turned a corner with two consecutive wins. That includes a 9-8 overtime victory over Hobart in their NEC-opener on Saturday. The win marked the program’s first 1-0 start in conference play since their historic 2019 campaign and first win over the Statesmen since 2018.
Sacred Heart head coach Jon Basti said that a key difference in this season as opposed to last year is what was facing this team off the field, as well as their approach on it. “Coming out of last season, to their credit, our guys said that the number one thing that needed to happen was they wanted to be held accountable…We felt like, that, because of all they were going through off the field (in 2021) that on the field we were just happy to be here and we were different.”
Part of that different approach has been a return back to the basics. “We really buckled down and focused on fundamentals, and that’s all that we have been talking about. It’s all just fundamental basic stuff,” Coach Basti said. “So far, so good.”
That “so good” includes their biggest win of the season on Saturday.
In that contest, the Pioneers found themselves down 7-3 early in the third quarter and being dominated in the possession battle as they not only struggled at the faceoff dot but also in the clearing game (22-28). They also committed 19 turnovers. However, the Pioneers were able to overcome those challenges and pull it all together for a 6-1, game-winning run to claim the comeback victory.
Carson Spooner forced overtime with 9:32 left in regulation and Ryan Stout put in the game-winner off the Morgan O’Reilly feed with 2:04 left in the overtime period. The assist gave O’Reilly his fourth point of the day as he led the Pioneers’ offense.
The late-game spark saw Sacred Heart slow things, and focus on their fundamentals in the clearing game and passing on the offensive end, which allowed them to build off the success that the defense was having at the other end.
“None of us ever felt like we were out of the game. The sideline didn’t feel it. I, as a coach, couldn’t even believe the score was what it was,” Basti said. “We just needed to think about what we had talked about all week and our fundamentals in clearing, hitting singles, and getting the ball to the areas where we wanted it to go,”
The Pioneers scored their first goal of that final run off a successful clear that led to a fairly quick settled possession. And once that Jake Garb score went in with 9:10 left in the third, the switch had been flipped on both ends as Sacred Heart was finally able to settle in and convert on the looks that they had been getting on cage.
Prior to that late-game run, the Pioneers offense experienced a nearly 20-minute dry spell, whilst watching the Statesmen put in four straight in a span of seven minutes from late in the second through the early portion of the third quarter. But the situation could’ve been much worse for Sacred Heart against an offense such as Hobart’s.
Coming into Saturday, Hobart was averaging 16 goals per, tied with Princeton as the fifth-best offense in college lacrosse, and ranked as the fifth-best man-up offense. However, the Sacred Heart defense would hold the Statesmen to just eight goals all day and two in the second half of play. They also went 2-of-6 on extra man situations. And twice, once in the first half and once in the second, the Pioneers were able to hold Hobart scoreless for 14-plus minutes.
Junior goalie Nicky LaBanca was the backbone of that defensive effort on Saturday and has been arguably the most important player for this Sacred Heart team each of the past few weeks. Sharing duties with Alex Pazienza early in the season, LaBanca came in for the second half against Providence and has never come off the field since.
He had a career-high 21 saves against UMass Lowell two weeks ago and then went out and made 14 saves with a 63% save percentage against Hobart. Seven of those saves came in the second half of play (five in the third quarter) as the goalie faced an offensive onslaught as the Statesmen put eight of their 23 shots on cage in the final two quarters.
“He is a sound lacrosse player, but [earlier in the season] he was trying to do all these different things and we just told him to be himself, be the person that got you to become a DI goalie. And he did and he has been playing within himself and is constantly working on his fundamentals, and it’s been working for him.”
LaBanca has been the headliner for this unit, but the guys out in front have also had to step up big time this season and they certainly made their biggest statement on Saturday. Connor Sullivan picked off a cross-field pass intended for a wide-open John Herlihy in overtime to give the Pioneers that lone and final possession of the period. And throughout the game, the Sacred Heart defense was able to pack it in tight and limit the number of close looks the Statesmen were able to get.
A big part of the Pioneers’ success on Saturday, as well as in recent weeks, is not only due to the good play that this unit is getting from top to bottom, but also due to what Basti calls their 20%. For a defense that is communication, posture, and ground balls.
“We literally do the same drills every day that focus on those three things and even when we are scouting for other teams, it’s mostly about focusing on those three things than it is about trying to play against a 1-4-1 that another team is going to run…It’s like anything else, there are fundamentals to playing good defense and they are doing a nice job right now of relying on those fundamentals and having confidence in each other and with the fundamentals to make the plays.”
That simplicity isn’t just reserved for Erich Skelly’s unit, either. A similar approach can also be seen on the other end of the field with offensive coordinator Chris Doctor and that unit, which has seen a bit of a youth movement this season with three sophomores and a freshman being top five scorers.
“The things that Coach Doc focuses on are the fundamentals of our offense…It’s not necessarily about how we want to attack another team, but how we want to play and the pace that we want to play at, as well as the mindset of how we are attacking and what is working for us at any particular time. It isn’t a game-to-game thing. It’s not a quarter-to-quarter thing. It’s just a constant mindset of how we play.”
This week, Sacred Heart turns their attention towards their second NEC opponent: Mount St. Mary’s. They will then play Wagner in two weeks and a midweek non-conference game against Lafayette lies in between. Does the path for the Pioneers to get back into that top four of the NEC look a little more promising after the Hobart win? Some would probably say yes. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.
Sacred Heart still has the likely toughest last three weeks in the conference, having to face defending champion Bryant, Saint Joseph’s, and LIU in consecutive weeks.
“There are still so many different areas that we are improving in and we have to understand that our 20% stuff that we have been working on doesn’t stop just because of what happened on Saturday.”