Zed Williams tallies 9 points, helps Whipsnakes erase 5-goal deficit in quarterfinal victory over Redwoods

By Andrew Crane | Aug 22, 2021

There stood Matt Rambo once again, with the ball in his stick at X, a tie game deep into the fourth quarter and one defender between him and Tim Troutner in the cage. He’d won the 2019 Premier League Lacrosse championship, the league’s inaugural one, with a similar sequence, using a screen and swimming around a final roadblock before swinging in the overtime’s game-winning goal. That thrust the Whipsnakes into a limelight they’ve never quite left.

On Sunday, Brad Smith’s shot bounced past the net with one minute left, prompting a reset in Rambo’s stick. He ran three steps toward Garrett Epple, tried to curl around — and couldn’t at first — the stick jammed into his own, but then finally did. A shot that bounced into the back of the cage took an earlier five-goal deficit the Whipsnakes faced irrelevant, made the impact of their early defensive struggles evaporate, and gave them a 14-13 lead with 55 seconds left.

That’s the way the score stayed, keyed by a Matt Abbott ground ball on the ensuing faceoff that allowed the Whipsnakes to play keep-away for the final few passes and wind down the final few seconds. They advanced past the Redwoods to their third-straight semifinal with their one-goal win, carried by Zed Williams’ nine points and Rambo’s pair of goals — including the decisive one at the end — as the pair, reunited three games ago after weeks of injuries, carried the offense in a game the Whipsnakes shot just 28%.

“We made some mistakes, but we played a really good second half at both ends of the field,” Whipsnakes head coach Jim Stagnitta said. “Defense picked it up, and certainly Brian Phipps gave us a big boost there.”

For the Redwoods, it marked the third painful end to their seasons, all three via one-goal losses to the Whipsnakes. It demonstrated the fragility of a campaign, how the sudden emergence of injuries — to faceoff specialist TD Ierlan, to midfielder and powerplay specialist Sergio Perkovic — can tilt a game further and further out of control. They claimed Drew Simoneau, who won the first five faceoffs in the opening quarter but just six across the final three. They started Charlie Bertrand, who scored four times and weaved through cutting lanes with ease, but they missed Perkovic’s presence on the powerplay unit.

Jules Heningburg opened the scoring after Simoneau won his first faceoff, inverting with the short-stick matchup and beating Jake Bernhardt to the cage. Then the Redwoods defense forced a shot-clock violation, and it seemed a blueprint, a trend to follow, had emerged. They’d pieced together a successful recipe for that earlier in the season, in July’s Minnesota weekend, when they silenced the Whipsnakes’ offense and won by six goals. Nat St. Laurent said earlier in the season that his goal for each game is to have the Redwoods hold opposing offenses to fewer than eight goals, and that game against the Whipsnakes was the only time they successfully accomplished that during the regular season.

Missing in that game, though, was Rambo. Limited in impact that game was Williams, one of two consecutive games where he didn’t score a goal. But he scored nine in the two games since, and brought the Redwoods within 2-1 after he rolled to his left off a dodge in transition and swung a shot past Troutner.

That’s when the Redwoods started to make their run, even as the Whipsnakes scored their second goal heading into the first media timeout and Joe Nardella won his first faceoff out of it. Ryder Garnsey finished an open look in transition. Heningburg scored again. And then Kevin Unterstein blocked a shot off his hand, keying a scoring chance at the other end where Heninburg’s skip pass found Garnsey alone at the right post to put the Redwoods up 8-4.

“They were better prepared and played harder in that first half,” Stagnitta said. “That's something that we can control.”

By the time halftime arrived, five seconds after Heningburg completed a hat trick, Whipsnakes head coach Jim Stagnitta needed to make a change. He told them in the locker room that they needed to “flip a switch,” he said postgame, that they needed to start cutting down on the mistakes and playing “playoff-caliber lacrosse.” Kyle Bernlohr had only made two saves in the opening 24 minutes, accumulating an 18% save percentage. They trailed 9-5, and had no answers defensively to the Redwoods’ midfield efficiency, a unit that scored seven goals on 11 shots. 

“You cannot replace a Sergio Perkovic,” Redwoods head coach Nat St. Laurent said. “You just can’t. And those guys stepped up against a really good defense and a couple good goalies and made some big-time plays.”

Stagnitta inserted Phipps for the second time this season — but the third quarter opened with similar results, as Bertrand cut off-ball in between a pair of defenders and finished behind-the-back past Phipps. Jay Carlson responded with a backdoor cut and goal for the Whipsnakes, and that started to inch the game in their favor.

It took more than that goal, though. They needed four others, at least. Two of them came when Troutner made a save on the doorstep with 2:38 left in the third quarter and Carlson tipped his outlet pass, sending the ball rolling toward the edge of the 2-point arc. Williams picked up the loose ball, leapt one step forward and converted on the long shot to make it 11-9.

And by the time one additional minute had passed, they’d tied the game. Williams’ fifth served as the Whipsnakes’ 11th, and during that time, they started to slide harder on defense and play more physical on-ball, Stagnitta said. Phipps finished with six saves. They held the Redwoods to just four tallies in the final two frames. And they helped the dents that their offense provided matter by withstanding counter possessions.

A Redwoods power play unit — ranked first in the league but missing Perkovic — faltered with 4:30 left after Bernhardt was called for an offsides. But perhaps the most important defensive stand, and Phipps’ best save of the night, came in the final minutes, when Heningburg ripped a shot that bounced off the pipe and Garnsey reset the possession in the corner. Phipps, though, timed a shovel pass to X perfectly and intercepted the ball, and then prevented a rebound from finding twine when the ball popped away.

That paved the foundation for the rest of the game, with the Redwoods never earning another offensive chance like that and the Whipsnakes capitalizing on those missed opportunities. On the possession before Phipps’ save, Stagnitta had called a timeout, trying to set up a play for his offense — for a reliable piece like Rambo, for the hottest hand like Williams. But a poor pass that Rambo bobbled resulted in a ground ball near the benches that bounced back toward the midline and eventually over.

On the next possession, though, Stagnitta didn’t call his final timeout and try again. This time, he let the trial and error of his offense roll through. First the trial with Smith’s shot, then the error when it bounced away. And what followed was the reward for patience, and a whole game of it, with Rambo’s finish — and fist pumps afterward — making sure it burst through as clear as possible.

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