Spurred by a suffocating defense and rock-solid goaltending, the men’s lacrosse team defeated archrival Wesleyan 4-2 in a gritty affair this weekend. In a dominating defensive performance, the Jeffs held Wesleyan scoreless for the final 55 minutes of Saturday’s contest.
With the victory, the Jeffs extended their winning streak to 12 games and clinched home field advantage for the first round of the NESCAC playoffs. By beating Wesleyan for the first time since 1999, the Jeffs also continued a recent trend of breaking long-time losing streaks to NESCAC rivals. Earlier this season, Amherst defeated Middlebury after having gone winless against the Panthers since 1989.
On a cold, rainy day at a soggy Gooding Field, both Amherst’s and Wesleyan’s defensive units played superbly, frustrating attacking thrusts for long stretches. The Jeffs, however, mustered just enough offense in the final quarter to pull out the victory. “Our defense played very, very well,” head coach Jon Thompson said. “Anchored by Jakimo, we didn’t try to do too much, we just owned our respective roles defensively.”
The ninth-ranked Jeffs have been plagued with slow starts at the beginning of games this season, and the problem flared up again versus No. 19 Wesleyan. The Cardinals scored twice in the opening five minutes of the contest to grab an early 2-0 lead. Despite the early deficit, the Jeffs remained confident. In their previous two games, the Jeffs had fallen behind 3-0 against Colby and Springfield, but overcame the early adversity to win both encounters.
In Saturday’s contest, Wesleyan did not score for the rest of the match (55 minutes) as the Amherst defense clogged the central slot area to limit high-quality scoring opportunities. Amherst defenders Gabe Mann ’11 and Arne Andersen ’13 provided beastly efforts on the backline, finishing with five and four ground balls, respectively.
Goaltender Sam Jakimo ’12 delivered a strong performance in net, finishing with 18 saves to anchor the defensive effort. While the defense generally restricted the Cardinals to perimeter shots, Jakimo made a few crucial point-blank saves to keep his team in the game.
On offense, the Jeffs responded with a man-advantage goal from Dan Routh ’11 with 5:27 remaining in the opening quarter, but the score would remain 2-1 until the fourth quarter of this defensive battle. “Taking care of the ball in early offense has been an Achilies heel as of late,” Thompson said. “We will get our grade A chances, if we just take our time a little more offensively. Patience will be the key moving forward. Taking calculated risks rather than reckless ones will be key for our defensive midfielders and our attackmen.”
The Jeffs’ offense finally erupted in the fourth quarter. Devin Acton ’14 tied the game 1:37 into the final period, firing a low shot after receiving a long pass from Ramsey Bates ’13. Amherst took its first lead of the game with 6:39 remaining; Cole Cherney ’12 sprinted from behind the net before catching a pass from Alex Fox ’12 and releasing a quick shot. Cherney scored his second of the game with four minutes left after receiving a great feed from Beda Cha ’14.
Wesleyan held a decisive edge in shots (45-25), but Thompson said the lopsided shot margin did not reflect the true competitive balance. “Wesleyan will shoot the ball from any and everywhere, thus the 45-shot total. I would rather take 20 quality shots than 40 tough-angle, selfish shots 10 times out of 10,” Thompson said. “Our defense is not designed to stop shots. It is designed to stop good shots.”
“Shots from outside of 12 yards are gimmies for our goalies. Often those are the shots that our defense has allowed — and we are just fine with that.”
Faced with a high volume of shots every game, Jakimo has served as the backbone of the Amherst defense, while establishing himself as (arguably) the best goaltender in the NESCAC. After a stellar 18-save performance on Saturday, Jakimo earned NESCAC Player of the Week honors for the second time this season.
“Sam has been monumental. He keeps his cool in the heat of the moment, and is a calming presence on the clear. He makes good, smart clearing decisions and has saved almost every shot that he should save,” Thompson said. “His consistency has proven to be an invaluable leadership trait, that I’m not sure Sam even knew he had.”
“It is so much fun to watch his confidence grow to the point where even if he does let in a goal — it doesn’t shake him. He is so mentally resilient at this point that one or two early goals don’t really affect him.”
Looking at the upcoming schedule, the Jeffs will take on Trinity in the regular season finale this Friday at Gooding Field. The Jeffs currently stand in second place in the NESCAC, but a Trinity victory would catapult the Bantams past Amherst in the conference standings.