Coming into Sunday’s NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament game at Franklin Field, Drexel’s Nick Saputo had scored three goals this season.
He equaled that total in the first half to spur the Dragons to a surprisingly lopsided 16-11 win over neighborhood rival Penn.
For Drexel (13-4), which is making it first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament, the victory sets up a quarterfinal matchup against fifth-seeded Denver next Sunday in Newark, Delaware.
“It’s amazing,” Saputo said. “As a group, this was our goal – to win CAAs and carry it into to NCAA tournament. It’s surreal and we just want to keep it rolling.”
Drexel head coach Brian Voelker said Saputo has been “a beast” all season in winning faceoffs. But for the junior midfielder to net a hat trick was certainly a huge surprise.
Even more surprising was how he did it as he helped the Dragons pull off the incredible feat of scoring three goals in 11.3 seconds.
With Drexel trailing 6-4 after a shorthanded goal from Penn’s Alex Blonsky late in the first half, Jules Raucci scored for Drexel with 17.7 seconds left and Saputo followed with two more goals in the final 12 seconds of the half, both after winning faceoffs and charging down the field uncontested.
Those goals gave the Dragons a 7-6 lead at halftime – their first lead of the game.
“I think it totally turned things around,” said Voelker, who used to coach at Penn. “I think Penn totally outplayed us in the first half. I was hoping got go into halftime only down one and he just turned the thing around. The momentum went from one side to the other pretty quickly.”
Fourth-seeded Penn (11-4), which was ranked No. 2 in the RPI and was coming off a championship in the loaded Ivy League tournament, had made a habit of coming from behind in the second half all season.
But after giving up those three goals at the end of the first half, the Quakers could not mount any kind of rally, instead allowing Drexel to score the first four goals of the second half to take an 11-6 lead and complete a monster 7-0 run that led to Penn head coach Mike Murphy pulling all-Ivy goalie Brian Feeney in favor of backup John Lopes.
“We were up 6-4 and they score seven straight and that made the difference in the game,” Murphy said. “And we never really recovered.”
As for his decision to pull Feeney, Murphy noted that he “didn’t feel like Brian was seeing the ball” and that making a change was a last-ditch “attempt to give us some energy.”
But while Lopes helped stem the tide for a bit, Penn couldn’t get any closer than 11-7 after three quarters of play.
And in the final quarter, CAA Player of the Year Ben McIntosh scored consecutive goals to put the Dragons up 13-7 and effectively seal the win for the Dragons.
Along with Saputo, McIntosh finished with a hat trick for the Dragons, while Raucci, Nick Trizano, Ryan Belka and Jared Boudreau all netted a pair of goals.
Saputo’s other goal came with 1.9 seconds left in the first quarter to trim Penn’s lead to 4-3 – less than 10 seconds after Penn’s Nick Doktor scored one of his three goals on the day following a great steal and pass from Drew Belinsky.
In the first half, Drexel scored five of its seven goals in the final minute of each quarter.
“We’ve said it all year,” McIntosh said. “We’ve got so many weapons on offense.”
Aside from Doktor, no one on the Quakers scored multiple goals as Penn (11-4) failed to capture its first NCAA tourney win since 1988, despite surging into the postseason with an eight-game winning streak and earning its first NCAA home game in 26 years.
“We’ve had a very good year,” Murphy said. “I’m very proud of the seniors. I just said to them in the locker room that they left Penn lacrosse much better than they found it. And they should feel good about that and try not to focus on how it ended.”
The Dragons, meanwhile, don’t have to think about their season ending just yet. And after winning a nationally televised game in front of a charged-up crowd at Franklin Field – with screaming Penn fans on one side and rabid Drexel fans on the other – they’re ready to put their nine-game winning streak on the line vs. Denver next week.
“It’s a different matchup,” Saputo said. “We’re going to practice all week to play them our best. We’re more pumped up than we could ever be.”