One year ago, a young but talented Western Mustangs team was heartbroken when they lost the Baggataway Cup championship game to the McGill Redmen. Sunday in St. Catharines, the Mustangs won the title they vowed to do everything they could to win, beating the Trent Excalibur 11-7 to earn the title of 2016 CUFLA champions.
“We've been thinking about this since last year at this time,” Western head coach Jeremy Tallevi told W88 www.avrasyahostel.com. “I think basically every guy that was on this team last year was committed to being back here. We had some great rookies, great additions, and guys really stepped up this weekend and all through the year.”
The key to the win was a 33-minute stretch from the start of the second quarter well into the third durin which Western outscored Trent 5-1 to take control of the game with an 8-4 lead. Trent wasn't able to claw back closer than a two-goal deficit the rest of the way despite a concerted effort.
Ryan Myles, who had a big game in the 2015 final with four goals and two assists, was even better this year. He scored five goals and an assist in the final and was named tournament MVP with eight goals and two assists on the weekend. Myles scored from a broad variety of shots and locations. His work helped take the pressure off forward Cody Ward, who drew much of Trent's defensive focus but who still managed a hat trick with a pair of goals late in the final.
“They gave a lot of attention to Reid Reinholdt,” Myles said of his fellow midfielder. “He played really well in the regular season so he just opens up the field and we got it done.”
Myles gave lots of credit to the Mustangs coaching staff for getting them ready to play. “Our coaches did a good job of preparing us for this game, watched a ton of film. We just came out confident, knowing we could win this one.”
It was great to go out on top, the fourth-year player added. But the Mustangs aren't ready to settle for one Baggataway Cup. Goalie Manraj Nijjar, who was the CUFLA West All-Canadian and the Baggataway all-star keeper, is only in second year and says he and his teammates will be after more gold. “We want to keep pushing, we want to keep winning the cup, we want to hold it down for a few more years,” Nijjar said.
The teams traded goals in the first quarter, with Western scoring three times and Trent responding each time. Myles' third and fourth goals in the second quarter gave the Mustangs a lead they wouldn't relinquish, although Justin Demarchi's goal four minutes before half time got the Excalibur close.
Trent faceoff man Nick Karam had a strong first half against Western's Michael Byrne, who was dominant when the Mustangs took out Guelph by a single goal in the semifinals. Byrne turned things around as the game went on, though, and his ability to produce possession was critical to Western's ultimate success.
Between Nijjar making critical saves and Byrne getting them the ball back after goals, Western was able to keep the Excalibur from sustaining momentum.
“Manny was incredible today. Whenever we needed a big save, he was there, responded and shut the door on them,” Tallevi said. “I think Michael Byrne on the draws, the same way. They would get a bit of momentum then we would get the ball back and stop it. Our whole faceoff group worked harder than ever this year and in games like today and yesterday, it was really worth it. They made a difference.”
The defence, led by Patrick McRory and LSM Keagan Croley as well as defensive middie Austin Haber, did their part by keeping Trent's top scorers in check. Jeff Fernandes didn't hit the scoreboard at all in the final after a regular season in which he scored 25 goals and 25 assists. Trent's leading goal scorer Cam Garlin had just one goal in the game and offensive catalyst Garrett Eddy was held to two second-half goals.
For the Excalibur, the loss was a disappointing ending to a brilliant season that saw them open with 11 straight wins and reach the Baggataway Cup championship game for the first time. While the result wasn't what they had hoped for, head coach Geoff McKinley was proud of his players.
“They worked hard game in and game out,” McKinley said. “They really were a close group of guys. We just didn't come up today. Western played really well and they buried on their chances. We didn't.”
While Nijjar was very good, McKinley pointed out that it was a complete effort from him and the defence in front of him that made it difficult for Trent's usually potent offence to score the way they usually do. “They jammed up the middle pretty good. They kept you off-balance,” McKinley said. “They were fast and they really preessured the shots. It took away our guys' ability to spot shoot, which we have some guys who can do it. Kudos to them, they did a good job.”
While McGill and other teams will have something to say about it, both Western and Trent look like solid bets to be pushing for Baggataway Cup titles in the coming years. Both have talented teams that have gained valuable experience over the past couple of seasons.
“We lose five. We lose some leaders on the back end, Cole Murduff and Brandon Armstrong, but I'm confident some of our youngers guys will be able to step in,” McKinley said of his team. “This is a great learning experience for them this year. Sometimes it takes the experience of getting here. Western hasn't won for 15 years, since 2001, and they've been here several times. The message to our guys is, it's not easy. These chances don't come every day but at the end of the day we tried our best and that's all you can ask of the guys.”
The championship game capped off an exciting weekend of CUFLA lacrosse and the talent on display bodes well for continued high-quality competition in 2017 and beyond. ?