Courtesy of Elizabethtown Athletic Communications
ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. -- Defending a championship is one of the toughest challenges in sport. It requires patience, poise and an unwavering commitment. Elizabethtown exhibited all of those traits in the second half to finally put away an upstart Goucher team, 9-5, in a Landmark Conference semifinal at Wolf Field on Wednesday afternoon.
The second-seeded Blue Jays' reward for beating the Gophers is a return trip to the conference title game for a third straight season, where they'll face top-seeded Susquehanna in Selinsgrove on Saturday at 2 p.m.
When E-town and Goucher met in the regular season back on March 31, it took a late fourth-quarter goal from Andrew Watts and Mike Scrafano's overtime winner for the Blue Jays to escape with a 9-8 decision. So it came as little surprise on a warm midweek afternoon that neither team was willing to give an inch out on the field. Elizabethtown's sights were set on a chance at back-to-back titles, while the Gophers were trying to reach their first Landmark championship since 2014, also their most recent postseason appearance.
Alex Filbert struck for the opening goal at 13:18 of the first quarter and the Blue Jays extended their lead to 2-0 on a goal from rookie Cameron Goodling with 1:50 left.
Goucher's (10-7) Michael Bulnes answered with a goal just over a minute later, and despite Watts' man-up goal early in the second, the Gophers came up with the last two goals of the half to send the teams off tied at three.
The Gophers had a pair of one-goal leads in the third, as Andrew Sade and Zephan Harnish sandwiched goals around one from Goodling.
Elizabethtown's push in the final half of the third quarter would prove to be the Gophers' undoing. Senior LSM Michael Hofstedt found Sankey all alone in front of the cage and the Robbinsville, New Jersey native beat all-conference goalie Matt Messerle to tie the game at five with 7:31 left in the period.
Less than three minutes later, Mike DiGenova took a pass from Watts and wrapped around the cage and snuck a shot in that gave the Blue Jays (8-9) the lead for good.
Sade then lost his footing exiting Goucher's defensive zone in the last 10 seconds of the third, allowing Sankey to pick up a ground ball and quickly snap a shot by Messerle for a 7-5 lead that seemed to deflate the Gophers.
Sankey completed his hat trick just under six minutes into the fourth and Watts buried a pass from Alec Leslie behind Messerle to finish the scoring with 1:11 to go.
Elizabethtown's steady and persistent approach started to show through after halftime. The home team held a 20-8 shot advantage (35-24 in the game), committed just four turnovers, was 10-of-11 clearing (19-of-20 in the game) and doubled up the Gophers in ground balls, 16-8, over the last 30 minutes.
Watts registered a career-high four points, registering two goals and two helpers. Sankey (three goals), DiGenova (one goal, two assists), Goodling (two goals) and Leslie (two assists) had multi-point games for the Blue and Gray.
The Blue Jays were locked in defensively all day. Newly-minted Landmark Conference Player of the Year Jeremy Klipple forced three turnovers and scooped up four ground balls. Second Team short stick defensive middie Jon Knapp also caused three turnovers, but it was the way they played in unison that made a difference. Elizabethtown held Goucher leading-scorer Matt Woodson without a point and effectively limited many of their top offensive threats.
Only Bulnes and Harnish had more than one point for the Gophers, each totaling a goal and an assist.
When the ball did find its way to cage, sophomore Tom Mahoney was there to clean up. Mahoney made eight saves and improved his conference-best save percentage to .602. Messerle turned away 11 chances from the Jays in defeat.