by Alan Babbitt
An opportunistic long-stick midfielder and one final defensive stand — in a game full of them — set up off a jubilant celebration Saturday night for the Hope College men's lacrosse team.
The top-seeded Flying Dutchmen defeated visiting Albion College, 6-5, in the championship game of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Tournament and punch their ticket to the NCAA Division III Tournament for the first time.
Freshman long-stick midfielder Brayden Blackburn, pictured hoisting the championship trophy, scored the go-ahead goal for Hope (14-3 overall) with 3 minutes, 57 seconds. The Flying Dutchmen then sealed the victory by forcing an Albion turnover in the closing seconds, despite being a man down due to a penalty.
"It was long-pole middle who got it off an assist from our faceoff guy. That's our game-winning goal there," head coach Michael Schanhals said. "It's a testimony to these guys sharing the ball and trusting each other. A freshman, how about that? Huge goal and a rocket too. He absolutely snapped that.
"We are beyond pumped. I'm very proud of our program, very proud of these young men. This is a special group."
Hope's spot in the 36-team national field will be announced on Sunday, May 5 at 9 p.m. on NCAA.com.
The Flying Dutchmen overcame a 4-2 deficit early in the third quarter.
Attacker Rocco Mularoni of Hartland, Michigan (Detroit Catholic Central) scored the first of his two goals with 5:37 left in the third quarter to cut Albion's lead to 4-3.
The Flying Dutchmen then struck for two goals early in the fourth quarter to take the lead. Sophomore Luke Elder of Grand Rapids, Michigan (East Grand Rapids) evened the score at the 12:28 mark.
Mularoni, who leads Hope with 39 goals this season, put Hope ahead 2:25 later off an assist from freshman Ethan Pinto of Grand Rapids, Michigan (Forest Hills Eastern).
Albion (8-9 overall) tied the score at 5-5 on Scott Shepard's man-up goal with 4:10 remaining.
On the faceoff, junior Marshall VanBelkum of Rockford, Michigan (Rockford) won possession and passed the ball up field to Blackburn.
Blackburn, a freshman from Muskegon, Michigan (Reeths-Puffer), charged toward the Albion goalie unchallenged and fired a shot past the goalie Trevor McManus, who finished the game with 19 saves.
"Marshall got it to me, and I was in stride," Blackburn said of his second goal of the season. "I just let it loose and it piped in. It was awesome. Unreal."
Amid celebrating players, friends and family on the field at Van Andel Soccer Stadium, Schanhals relished an unforgettable moment for a lacrosse program that started as a club sport in 1974 at Hope College and became a varsity program in 2013.
Schanhals played goalie for the Flying Dutchmen and was elected captain for the 1990 season. He became Hope's head coach in 2005.
His son, Nick Schanhals, made 11 saves against Albion.
"It was everybody working really hard," Schanhals said before he was doused by a ice-cooled water cooler by his players. "Credit to Albion. They made us earn it."