KEENE, N.H. 4/13/11 – Just beyond the midpoint of its regular season, the Keene State men’s lacrosse team had an unusual break in its schedule this week. But that doesn’t mean the Owls haven’t been busy.
The Owls are using the time to get ready for their highly anticipated Little East game against Eastern Connecticut State University. The two conference titans will renew their rivalry this Saturday at Owl Athletic Complex. Face-off is scheduled for 6 p.m.
“We specifically clear our schedule to get ready for this game,” said Keene State Coach Mark Theriault. “There’s so much at stake.”
“Obviously, it’s the biggest game of the year for us,” said senior defenseman Justin Flessa-LaRoche from Walpole, N.H. “They’re our biggest rivals. We plan the whole season around this game.”
Over the past few years, the winner of the game has gone on to capture the LEC regular season championship, claiming the top seed in the tournament and the opportunity to host the finals.
This year is no different. Tied for top spot in the LEC standings, Keene State (7-2, 2-0 LEC) and Eastern Conn. (7-3, 2-0 LEC) feature two of the strongest offensive and defensive teams in the conference. Upfront, the Owls rely on their formidable foursome of Griffin Meehan (26-11-37), Taylor Jette (19-12-31), Matt Schairer (21-8-29), and Ian Hart (11-17-28) while the Warriors counter with the terrific threesome of Grant Albertson (21-7-28), Mike Sullinger (10-16-26), and Salieu Boliver (18-7-25). Both Keene State’s Jason Leser (7.05 GAA, .653 Save Pct.) and Eastern’s Donald Berube (8.63 GAA, .590 Save Pct.) are two of the best goalies in the league.
However, the Warriors have a major advantage in the face-off circle where senior All-American Eric Vasil leads Division III in face-off pct. (.801) and ground balls per game (14.44). “Vasil is a tremendous face-off player, so we’re going to have throw some wrinkles in the mix to compete with him,” said Theriault.
Possession will be the determining factor in the game. Offensively, KSC will try to maintain control of the ball. “That’s what we’ve been stressing all week,” said Schairer. “When we get the ball, we want to score but we also want to hang on to it as much as we can.”
Defensively, the Owls hope to take the ball away from the Warriors. “We’re going to try to force some turnovers,” said Flessa-LaRoche. “It will be nice to see our defense step up in a big game.”
Although they haven’t played any common opponents to date, Keene State and Eastern Conn., ranked ninth and 10th respectively in this week’s New England poll, have both claimed wins over a nationally ranked team. The Owls upset Geneseo State (10-9, OT) and the Warriors edged Conn. College (12-11). Eastern got set for Saturday’s skirmish with a 13-8 loss to No. 6 Wesleyan on Tuesday.
The KSC-ECSU rivalry took a while to get going. When the Owls began varsity play in the spring of 1998, they were easy fodder for the Warriors. Eastern, which holds a 14-6 lead in the series, outscored KSC 122-19 in the teams' first six meetings, but the scoring deficit gradually diminished over the years. KSC and ECSU met in the 2003 and 2004 LEC finals, with the Warriors winning each time. The tide turned in the Owls' favor in 2005 when they defeated Eastern in the regular season and tournament championship to earn their first NCAA berth. The two teams traded titles with ECSU winning in 2006 (14-12) and KSC prevailing in 2007 (18-6). Both teams were semifinal upset victims in 2008. In 2009, Eastern defeated Keene State 14-10 during the regular-season and clinched its sixth conference crown with a 12-8 victory over the Owls.
Last season, Keene State defeated Eastern 17-11 in Mansfield, Conn., marking the first time the Owls had beaten the Warriors on enemy turf. KSC went on to defeat ECSU in the LEC finals 14-11. “That was a tremendous milestone for the program,” said Theriault about last year’s regular season win. “Now it’s time for us to defend our turf.”