The New Jersey Pride relished the role of spoiler, upsetting the Eastern Conference leading Rochester Rattlers 13-12, Saturday night at Yurcak Field in New Jersey. Playing for respect, the Pride stood toe-to-toe with the hottest team in the MLL and won. The loss snaps an eight-game win streak for Rochester and sends them into a tie for first in the East.
As to be expected, John Grant Jr. got his team rolling for Rochester about six minutes into the first quarter, assisting Jeff Zywicki as time ran out on a New Jersey penalty. Grant Jr., Casey Powell, and Colin Doyle showed creativity, often moving the ball with no-looks passes, behind the head flings, and shots leaving their sticks from all sorts of odd angles. If these players’ feet aren’t faster than most others in the league, their decisions still are.
New Jersey built an early lead with the help of their veteran attackers though. Matt Rewkowski hit Conor Ford as Ford was circling the cage. Ford took the pass in stride, kept coming, and dove at the post for the goal.
Ryan Mollett got himself involved then, showing his own offensive aptitude. When Mollett was originally recruited by Princeton, coach Bill Tierney wanted him as a middie. But soon after his stint with the Tigers began, he picked up the pole, while not forgetting how to score. Showing shades of his old self, Mollett got the ball on the wing in Jersey’s offensive zone. Seeing he had a shortstick and no slide ready to help, he came right at the crease, dove, and used the longstick to wrap around the post and stuff the ball past Rochester keeper Mike Levin.
Scotty Urick got his name in the ledger sticking a shot in the corner from 10-yards out, the finishing end of a Dan Chemotti assisted fast break goal. At the end of the first quarter the Pride had a 3-1 lead.
But as quickly as they built it, the Rattlers knocked it down. Powell hit Gavin Prout on a well executed cut right down the heart of the Pride’s D, scoring 31 seconds into the second quarter. Three minutes later, Doyle found Joe Walters all alone on the crease for the finish. Then 43 seconds after that, a few quick passes skip the ball from Doyle to Prout on the inside, who, with little room, beat Jersey goalie Rob Scherr with a behind the head shot. And like that the Rattlers led 4-3.
Mollett helped the offense again, getting a feed to Kyle Harrison who ripped a worm-burner between Levin’s legs. But Rochester’s’ formidable longstick with his own offensive aspirations stepped up.
Brodie Merrill was a force in this game. Relentlessly attacking ground balls, often ones Merrill created with some filthy over-the-head check, he simply made plays. The best part of watching a defender like Merrill is, for all the crazy checks he can throw, he relies mostly on simple, effective stick work. He can time or sense when a players’ stick is exposed. He is almost never out of position, and if he is, he makes up the ground quickly. Most importantly, unlike so many other longsticks with flashy moves, he never sells out to make the play. Merrill earned his fifth goal of the year with a desperate push up field. He carried the ball, lost it, got it back, and then fired a low shot, perhaps because there really was little else he could do, but it found the back of the net and reestablished the Rattler lead, 5-4.
On the ensuing faceoff, wing middie Pat Dutton got the loose ball and came right down the heart of the Jersey defense. He threw two weak fakes, but they still beat two weak slides, and bounced a shot past Scherr. New Jersey would steal one more, with 17 seconds left in the half. Rewkowski hit Merrick Thompson, a rookie who has really come on in the final weeks of the season, for an outside rip that flat out beat Levin. The half ended with Rochester on top, 6-5.
Walters scored the Rattlers’ seventh goal 26 seconds into the third quarter. New Jersey used transition as Greg Peyser carried up field, then hit Ford for his usual underhand blast. Harrison scored with his typical style, carrying the ball on a clear, settling into the offensive end, rolling on his man a few times to get a step, and then nailing the top corner.
Zywicki showed why it pays to play with such good feeders as Grant Jr. and Powell. While Zywicki is a crafty veteran himself, adept at finding space on the interior of defenses and getting off shots in traffic, his set-up men can feed him from anywhere, usually with a little panache. Finishing a fast break, Powell got the ball at the point and used a quick behind-the-head flick to hit Zywicki sitting on the crease. Textbook fast break, except for Powell’s dish of course. Then Grant Jr. one-upped Powell. As the Rattlers ran their offensive set, Grant Jr. had the ball near the two-point line, looked off at a middie on the wing, and then zipped a no-look, behind the head pass inside to Zywicki who quickly caught and shot.
But the tide quickly changed for Rochester. After building a 9-7 lead and controlling the tempo of the third quarter, New Jersey took over reeling off six straight goals.
First Rewkowski scored on a diving effort in front of the crease. As he landed, pushes and shoves escalated into a near fight that sent Chris Schiller and Joe Yevoli to the penalty box. It seemed Jersey knew attackers charging in at Levin would fluster him, because many of the six scored in the third and fourth quarters were attempts just like that. Thompson had his own diving goal, getting a step on Sol Bliss and just beating him to the post, where Thompson stretched out for the score with about a minute left in the quarter.
Thompson and Rewkowski picked up where they left off 1:26 into the fourth quarter. Rewkowski made a nice look to Thompson on the wing who turned and plugged an almost no-angle shot for the hat trick. The Ford took to the air again, getting a step, charging the cage, and laying his big frame out to get his hat trick. Ford then used his size again, muscling into the middle and bouncing a shot between Levin’s legs just 27 seconds later. Adam Doneger capped off the run for New Jersey with an athletic bounce shot on the run. The Pride now found themselves holding a 13-9 lead over division leading Rochester.
But the Rattlers lead the division for a reason. Rochester held Jersey scoreless for the last 7:12 of the game. It was up to the crafty offense to get it done.
The Rattlers clicked right in off the ensuing faceoff. FOGO Alex Smith won possession, stormed down field, and scored on a bouncer when no one slid to him. Then Schiller scored on a fast break, working a textbook give-and-go with Walters on the wing. The Rattlers moved the ball well on O, and Casey Powell got a nifty feed in to Prout for the score. But with a one-goal lead to protect, the Pride defense stepped up to the challenge, blanking the Rattlers for the final 4:32 of the game.
With about a minute left, an ugly flare up on the sideline erupted when Powell disputed a call with an official, quite understandable as emotions fly in such a close game. But Powell went over the top, slamming his stick into the sponsor signs near the box and getting himself a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The man advantage allowed the Pride to pass the ball around the outside and kill off the final seconds on the clock.
Though he did not make any standout, spectacular, highlight reel saves, Scherr earned Bud Light MVP honors for his impressive 26 save performance, a true feat against a team so stocked with shooters. Scherr has been a rock for New Jersey all season, and yet he is not often in the conversation when talking about the leagues’ elite goalies. Scherr makes a strong case for his work, though he does so quietly. He plays angles well, is smart with his clears, and holds his ground. I have seen him stuff more shots from 3-yards in this season than I can count. He leads a strong defensive unit that will hopefully be the difference for this team next year, as offensive stars jump off the New Jersey roster.
The win was possibly the Pride’s most impressive victory of the season. Rochester now falls to 8-3, tied with Philadelphia for the top spot in the East. The Rattlers finish the regular season at home against Boston next Saturday night. They are still secured a playoff spot along with Philly, Denver, and Los Angeles.
The Pride now sit at 4-7, idle for some time in the playoff picture. While this will be another losing campaign for New Jersey, the team has played some very good, very tough games. Often they have come up short late. Three overtime loses (two to Washington, one to Philly) gone the other way may have had this year’s team looking at a long awaited playoff appearance. The Pride finish their season next Saturday on Long Island in a game to decide the dubious title of last-place in the East.