Wildcats Storm Past O’Neill in the State Playoffs

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Michael Leva scored five goals in
Westlake’s regional win over O’Neill.

A fast-moving thunderstorm arrived at Kingston’s Dietz Stadium last Wednesday evening shortly after the Westlake boys’ lacrosse team had stepped onto the field to begin pregame warmups.

When the thunder and lightning finally departed, the Wildcats took over for Mother Nature.

Scoring early and often, Westlake set off its own offensive fireworks, drubbing Section Nine champion James I. O’Neill 20-3 in the opening round of the Class D state regionals. Michael Leva scored five goals and assisted on two others, while Rob DiNota added four goals as the Wildcats followed up their impressive upset of Bronxville with a dominating performance against the overmatched Raiders.

“They’re definitely confident and we’ve got a couple of our guys playing the best lacrosse that they’ve played all season right now,” said Wildcats coach Hunter Burnard about his team, which made its first-ever appearance in the state tournament about as anxiety free as possible for him. “So it’s good timing. Some of our guys are definitely playing their best.”

The game, delayed an hour by the weather, was just 45 seconds old when the Wildcats’ Kyle Donnery, taking advantage of an O’Neill turnover, fired a shot past Raiders goalie Aaron Florence to open the evening’s scoring. Three minutes later, Leva, from the right doorstep, tallied his first goal at the end of a fast break.

It took just another seven seconds for the Wildcats to jump ahead 3-0 as DiNota, who won 13 of 15 face-offs in the first half, raced the ball down the middle of the field, faked a shot and then sent the ball past Florence. Less than 45 seconds later, Dylan Donnery scored the first of his two goals and the Wildcats suddenly had a 4-0 cushion less than five minutes into the contest.

“We felt prepared coming into this one,” said Burnard, who saw film of O’Neill against the one common opponent the teams had – Haldane. “We just wanted to make sure the guys came out mentally ready to play. You know, you come emotionally ready to play and then all of a sudden you have to calm yourself down and refocus after an hour rain delay. But I think our guys did a pretty good job.”

A goal by the Raiders’ Brian Kelly cut the Westlake lead to 4-1 with 4:44 remaining in the opening quarter, but late in the period Leva and James Gorman provided goals nine seconds apart, enabling the Wildcats to build a 6-1 lead after the opening 12 minutes.

O’Neill got its second goal of the evening nearly two minutes into the second quarter, but wouldn’t score another until the final seconds of the fourth period. Meanwhile, Westlake, which had scored 20 times in the sectional final against perennial power Bronxville, tacked on another six goals over a six-and-a-half-minute stretch that increased its lead to 12-2 at halftime.

Adding to the indignity for the Raiders, the goal that gave the Wildcats a 10-2 advantage with 4:25 left in the half, was actually put past the increasingly frustrated Florence by one of his own teammates. Then, just 30 seconds later, Ryan Donnery played cat and mouse with Florence from right of the cage, faking low and then easily depositing the ball into the back of the net.

Leva scored three of his goals in the third quarter, and DiNota added the two other Westlake goals as the Wildcats extended their lead to 17-2 after three quarters. According to Burnard, though, the emphasis at halftime was hardly on offense.

“Our goal in the second half was to not allow any more goals and just get on their hands and make life difficult when they were on offense,” he said. “Defense is just working hard, so we just wanted them to continue to work hard in the second half.”

It took over four minutes for Westlake to score once the fourth quarter got under way. Kyle Donnery picked up a loose ball left of the cage and sent a one-hopper past Florence for his third goal of the game. Nicholas Papaleo and Nicholas Gorman added the Wildcats’ final two goals of the game, but the highlight of the fourth quarter came when Burnard lifted goalie Nick Ryan with 4:35 left on the clock.

As Ryan trotted off the field, after finishing his night with 15 saves, he received a loud round of cheers from the appreciative Westlake crowd.

“It was great,” said Burnard about the ovation for his junior goalie. “They all love Nicky Ryan, so it was good to get him that applause. We graduated a great goalie last year in Brendan Birkelbach and that was a question mark coming into the season. And he has exceeded all expectations. He’s by far the most improved player and one of our most valuable players. He’s an all-league goalie and we can’t say enough about him.”

The Wildcats went on to defeat Section 2 champion Greenwich 12-5 on Saturday behind three goals and three assists from Leva. Next up is a state semifinal on Wednesday evening against Long Island champ Babylon at Adelphi University. That game figures to be a far greater challenge than the one Westlake received from O’Neill in its first-ever appearance in the state tournament.

“Um, I’ll take 20 to 3 every day,” said Burnard, with a laugh. “It was awesome.”

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