Merrimack College men’s lacrosse coach Mike Morgan found his mind wandering a bit near the end of last Saturday’s game.
Who could blame him?
The No. 1 seed in the Div. 2 Northeast Region, LeMoyne University, had just broken a 13-13 tie with 26 seconds left in this usually epic battle between Northeast-10 Conference lacrosse powers, with the winning team heading to the national championship game in Philadelphia this Sunday.
“You start thinking about what a great year it’s been, what a great run we had in Division 2,” said Morgan.
“But then you also realize there is enough time,” added Morgan. “If we win the faceoff, call a timeout, and get the ball in Charlie Bertand’s stick, anything can happen.”
Morgan’s players weren’t apparently with him on the “great year” and “great run” just yet. They were all-in on the second part of his answer. And just as Morgan scripted -- winning the faceoff, calling a timeout, giving the ball to the Div. 2 Player of the Year -- Merrimack had a chance.
The ball ended up being dislodged from Bertrand, but ended up in Don Thomas’ stick. With only four seconds remaining, Thomas tied the score at 14-14.
Overtime was another by the script moment, with Davis Cronin winning the faceoff, leading to a quick timeout. Thomas’ brother, Christian Thomas, got around the defense from the left side and got to within 20 feet of the goal, scoring over the right shoulder for the overtime win and NCAA Div. 2 title berth.
“I don’t know if this is the way it was meant to happen,” said Morgan. “We have prepared for these situations. But things don’t always work out. That was our last game against LeMoyne, a big rival for us, and to end it like that was amazing.”
Norwich University coach Neal Anderson saw the comeback on video. He not only appreciated it as a coach, , but he appreciated it as one of Morgan’s best friends. The duo were senior captains together in 2000 as well as All-Americans.
Merrimack has been very good at lacrosse for nearly two decades. But this run, now three straight national championship trips, is beyond special.
And it starts and ends, says Anderson, with his pal, coach Morgan.
“Mike has all of the qualities you need in a winner,” said Anderson. “As a player, he was a competitor, always thinking ahead one step and two steps. As a coach, it’s the same thing. His teams are tough, like him, and they are also very prepared. In terms of making adjustments on the fly, he’s as good as it gets.”
After graduating from Merrimack in 2000, he went back home to Long Island, N.Y. and helped coach his alma mater, St. Dominic, where Rick Pitino and Ralph Willard attended.
“I was a big basketball guy growing up. Big,” said Morgan. “As a junior I was the backup point guard on a team that made it to the state semis. I didn’t play my senior year because I had a scholarship in lacrosse and wanted to devote more time to it.”
Morgan led St. Dominic to 38 wins in four years, the most in school history over a four-year stretch, before coming back to Merrimack as an assistant.
After two years as an assistant, he was named at take over the program after the 2007 season.
It was a good decision. Merrimack, which was 6-8 the year before, has never won fewer than 11 games in Morgan’s 12 seasons.
His overall record at Merrimack is 163-41. One of those wins was last year’s national title win, 23-6, over St. Leo at Gillette Stadium.
“One of the things that attracted me to Merrimack was coach Morgan,” said Charlie Bertrand, the two-time USILA Div. 2 Player of the Year.
“The standards were high here. They want to compete for championships every year,” said Bertrand, a junior who has helped lead Merrimack to three straight national title games. “That’s exactly what I was looking for, to play for a winner. He’s a demanding coach. He definitely has helped make me a better player.”
Morgan has had inquiries over the years from Div. 1 programs, but with rumors of Merrimack seeking to move up to Div. 1, which officially happens in September in the Northeast Conference, he figured this should be his home going forward.
“The facilities have improved almost every year,” said Morgan. “And the commitment to the lacrosse program has been growing, too. Why leave? We’ve built something here. This is my alma mater, which I’m very proud of. Let’s do this together.”
Immediately on Morgan and Merrimack’s docket is Limestone College, 20-0, which is no stranger to the national championship game and Merrimack.
Limestone, which is in Gaffney, S.C., has played in 12 NCAA Div. 2 title games, and five of the last six. Limestone beat Merrimack, 11-9, two years ago.
“They are an incredible program,” said Morgan. “We know of them very well. That was a tough loss for us two years ago. But honestly, being our last game in Division 2, we might as well play the best. We’ve been on the road the entire way, which is hard to do. But we wouldn’t want it any other way.”
You can email Bill Burt at email@example.com.
The Morgan resume
From: Oyster Bay, N.Y.
Resides: North Andover
Family: Wife, Allison; daughter, Brooke
Alma mater: Merrimack, 2000
Merrimack’s championship game
What: Div. 2 title game
When: Sun., May 26, 1 p.m.
Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pa.
Who: Vs. Limestone College, which has played in 12 NCAA title games