By Mac Cerullo
---- — NEWBURYPORT – For three quarters, it appeared as if Newburyport had finally found a defense it couldn’t solve and an offense it couldn’t stop. Austin Prep was possessing the ball, finding the back of the net and looked like a team on the verge of pulling off a huge upset.
But then as the clock ticked down to the game’s final minutes, the Clippers came alive.
The top seeded Newburyport boys lacrosse team (16-1) erased a four-goal deficit late to beat No. 9 Austin Prep (12-8) by a score of 13-11 in Saturday’s Division III North Quarterfinal matchup.
The turning point came early in the fourth quarter, when Newburyport scored two quick goals and then went on a lengthy man advantage after Austin Prep got called for a high hit to the head and was assessed a three-minute locked-in penalty.
Newburyport capitalized on the opportunity and scored three quick goals to tie the game at 11. With all the momentum on their side, the Clippers scored twice more in the last few minutes to take their first lead of the game and ultimately claim the win.
“I think we were a little nervous to start, but once we scored a couple of goals we realized we could play with them, we turned it on and got it done in the fourth quarter,” said junior Mike Shay, who led the Clippers with five goals on the afternoon.
Coming off a big win at Triton in the first round, Austin Prep came out of the gate strong, with junior Matt Morgan scoring within the first 45 seconds to give the Cougars an early lead.
Shay would tie the game a few minutes later off a nice pass from junior Matt Kelleher, but the Cougars would retake the lead with 2:28 to play in the first off a goal by junior Sean Sullivan, and they would maintain that lead for most of the rest of the game.
The first half proved to be a tough defensive battle, as both team’s top attackers struggled to reach the front of the net. Austin Prep went into halftime leading 4-3, but then things began to open up in the third as costly mental errors started to impact the flow of the game.
The third quarter was nearly a disaster for Newburyport, as the Clippers spent most of the frame in their own defensive zone due to a series of ill-timed penalties. Austin Prep’s dangerous attacking line took advantage of its opportunities, scoring five goals in quick succession to take control of the game.
Newburyport was able to sprinkle in three goals of its own to keep within striking distance, but after Morgan scored again to open the fourth quarter, the Clippers found themselves down 10-6 and facing the real possibility that their tournament aspirations were about to go up in smoke.
Unwilling to see their season end, the Newburyport attack finally got itself going. Two minutes into the fourth, Kelleher and Shay each scored within seconds of each other to cut the deficit to 10-8, and after the Cougars got another goal from Sullivan, the Clippers ran off five unanswered goals to complete the comeback.
“I think we were sluggish in the first half, what killed us is in the second half we played that whole third quarter in the penalty box, so there was no momentum there,” said Newburyport coach Ed Gaudiano. “We were able to survive that, stay close and we’ve got the offensive guys who can put that on in the fourth quarter, all we needed was possessions.”
After being held to just a single goal for most of the game, Kelleher finally found his groove in the fourth quarter and wound up scoring the game-tying goal with five minutes to play. Kelleher finished with four goals and an assist, JJ Bajko had two goals and Brendan Barraclough scored one.
Both team’s goalkeepers also had fantastic days, as Newburyport’s Dillon Guthro and Austin Prep’s Steven Davis repeatedly made huge saves to keep their teams in the ballgame. Guthro in particular had one play where he made a save to preserve the team’s 12-11 lead, ran with the ball all the way to the Austin Prep net and then dished it to Shay, whose shot rang off the post, denying Guthro a rare assist.
“He usually gets yelled at when he does that, but he does a good job,” Shay said. “He finds the open guys and doesn’t make any stupid throws like most goalies do when they come out. I’m proud of him.”
For Austin Prep, Morgan and Sullivan each finished with three goals, junior Bobo Carpenter finished with two, and Kevin Kiley and Brett Mazza each had one. After the game, Austin Prep coach Peter Smyth said his team played well enough to win and that he was proud of the effort they put forth.
“I couldn’t have asked for them to play better, they played out of their minds,” Smyth said. “Last time we came up here they beat us up pretty well, and today I think we made them a little nervous. It just stinks to go out the way that we did.”
Newburyport will now move on to the Division III North Semifinal where they will face Cape Ann League rival Pentucket on Wednesday. The game will begin at 5 p.m., and Newburyport athletic director Bob Clarke said that tickets will cost $7 for adults and $5 for students.