Matt Waterhouse had already scored a game-high four goals when last Thursday afternoon’s Section One, Class D championship at Lakeland High School headed to overtime.
His fifth, though, eclipsed all the others and will long be remembered at Briarcliff High School.
The freshman midfielder’s missile-on-the-move shot from right of the cage 45 seconds into the tense and dramatic extra session found the back of the net, propelling the second-seeded Bears to a 9-8 victory and their first-ever lacrosse championship, while bringing a crushing end to Pleasantville’s four-year reign as sectional titlists.
“My first inclination was to go to the cage,” said Waterhouse afterwards, recreating the moment he and his teammates won’t ever forget. “And when I went to the cage, I didn’t think I was gonna hit that last shot. But I did. I’m still so shocked by it. Oh my, I froze. I was just shocked. The whole team came running and they tackled me.”
Waterhouse’s decisive goal enabled the Bears to avoid what would have been an epic collapse after building a five-goal lead in the third quarter and then allowing the fourth-seeded Panthers to roar back and eventually tie the score with two improbable goals in the last 33 seconds.
“Unbelievable,” said Bears head coach Al Meola shortly after his jubilant players had been handed their championship plaque. “We knew it was gonna be tough. We knew it wasn’t gonna be easy. At the end of the day, it was a great game. If you’re a spectator, you loved that game. If you’re a coach, you lost some time off your ticker. But we got the ‘W.’ That’s all we care about right now. We’re moving on.”
In a rematch of the 2017 Class C final and last year’s Class D semifinal, both won by the Panthers, the third time proved to be the charm for Briarcliff. Waterhouse, a lanky speedster whose acceleration ability will likely create many headaches for opposing coaches over the next few years, served notice that he was up for the challenge when he sent a lefty rocket past Panther goalie Brian Wilson just 76 seconds after the opening face-off to put the Bears on the scoreboard first.
Pleasantville managed to tie the game midway through the first quarter on a goal by senior star Jack Howe, who had scored six times, highlighted by his winner in overtime, during Monday’s 11-10 road victory over top-seeded Bronxville. But the Bears regained the lead again when Waterhouse made a long run from the left corner across the field before firing a one-hopper into the net with 59 seconds left in the period.
The Bears scored again just past the midway point of the second quarter on Noah Benson’s shot from left of the cage, assisted by Jack Ricciardi, with P’ville down a man. Briarcliff’s lead grew to 5-1 with 3:03 left in the half after goals by Kyle Proctor and Waterhouse just 34 seconds apart. A goal by Pleasantville’s Jack Halloran just before the buzzer sounded enabled the Panthers to leave the field at halftime with a bit more belief.
“We felt very confident coming into the game,” said disappointed Panthers coach Chris Kear. “We felt we had a good game plan, and I think overall we just made too many mental errors and countless turnovers that came back to bite us.”
If Halloran’s last-second goal gave the Panthers some much-needed momentum, it didn’t last long. Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Ricciardi, another of the Bears’ promising freshmen, came around from the back of the cage and fired a lefty shot past Wilson from right of the crease.
Waterhouse, already with a hat trick in the first half, added his fourth goal of the day with a low shot on the run that extended Briarcliff’s big lead to 7-2 with 6:57 remaining in the third quarter. But the Bears wouldn’t score again over the next 12 minutes of playing time. Meanwhile, the Panthers began a comeback bid with Matt May’s shot into an open cage 22 seconds after the goal by Waterhouse.
Howe’s second goal of the afternoon, past screened Briarcliff goalie Ian Leahy, cut the Panther deficit to 7-4 with 2:07 left in the quarter. Pleasantville, forced to play without leading scorer Jake Coleman, who injured his shoulder in the Bronxville game, got even closer when Pat Doherty made a cross-crease pass to Jack Roye, who converted from the left doorstep with 33 seconds to go in the period.
Briarcliff finally ended its scoring drought as Proctor came from behind the cage and set up Spencer Rockmore in front for a goal that gave the Bears an 8-5 cushion with 6:36 left in the contest. As the clock ticked down to under five minutes, it seemed a Briarcliff coronation was inevitable.
“At times, it seemed like they were giving up even when there was a lot of time left in the game,” said the Panthers’ Kear about his players. “You never give up. If we had not given up so soon, I think we would’ve been fine.”
Still, the Panthers’ ‘drive for five’ was hardly finished. Halloran, with Howe screening the goalie, sent a blistering shot into the cage with 4:40 remaining. That set the stage for a final minute that defied any logic. Pleasantville, despite being down a man, got a goal from Roye with 33 seconds on the clock, then forced a key turnover with 11 seconds to go.
Howe quickly passed the ball up the field and May, running hard to his right, shot the ball past Leahy with three seconds left, tying the score and leaving the stunned Bears in disbelief.
“Yeah, that was tough,” said Meola. “We had time to kill, get in the box and run some stuff. We called a timeout. We didn’t execute what we wanted. I think they sort of got a little nervous and rattled. Keeping it in and all the pressure, and Pleasantville did a great job. We made those mistakes, so we made it interesting. I was just trying to tell everyone to ‘hit the reset button. Everyone needs to calm down. We’re gonna be fine. We’ve got the ball.’”
The Bears did have the ball to start overtime, but a clutch save by Wilson on a shot from Anthony Capasso gave Pleasantville momentary possession. Unfortunately for the Panthers, Wilson’s clearing pass toward midfield was picked off by Proctor. Moments later, the Bears came out of a timeout with their fortunes about to be decided by Waterhouse, who was able to run past Brennan McDermott and release his decisive shot just before help could arrive.
“We went into a set we call ‘Ohio,’ which is sort of like an open set,” said Meola. ”We masked it like we weren’t in it and then he (Waterhouse) came around the top. He set up his dodge and we cleared through and he was able to get that shot off. It’s still so surreal, honestly.”
“I was so shocked that this was happening,” said Waterhouse, who was instantly greeted by all his giddy teammates behind the cage. “Yeah, there was definitely a lot of weight on top of me. But, honestly, we’re all full of happiness and great emotion.”
“I was just so nervous,” conceded Meola, whose first title ironically came on the campus of the same school he once played for. “If we lost in overtime, I think I would’ve been heartbroken going home on that bus. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep for a while, just kind of playing it back in your head all the time.”
That misfortune now awaits Kear, who has led Pleasantville to seven consecutive appearances in sectional finals.
“We definitely had our chances, but hats off to Briarcliff because they played well and they took care of their opportunities,” he said. “It’s just one of those days where we just didn’t bring our ‘A’ game and they did, and that was the difference in the game. We were just waiting for that spark and it just didn’t materialize.”