LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Spring-like weather conditions and a sizeable home crowd created an ideal atmosphere for Liberty University's men's lacrosse team to open its season on Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Lacrosse Fields. The Flames made sure there was a positive ending with an impressive, 16-4 victory over SELC opponent East Carolina.
"We're optimistic," said coach Kyle McQuillan after the Flames, ranked No. 20 in the MCLA Under Armour preseason coaches poll, got goals from eight different players, including four freshmen. "We are going to be relying a lot on freshmen this year and it was great to see not just some of our upperclassmen have success, but a really balanced stat sheet today. All five of our attack scored today and five of our midfielders scored as well."
Senior attackman Nick Lombardozzi ignited the Flames' offense — and the flamethrowers beyond ECU's goal — cutting from left to right behind the cage and finishing his run with a sharp-angled shot from the right side into the upper netting for a 1-0 advantage with 12:21 left in the first quarter.
"Nick just kind of picked up from where he left off last year," McQuillan said.
After an eight-minute scoring lull, the Flames concluded the quarter with three more goals in the final 4:21 — the first a submarine-style shot by Lombardozzi (4g, 1a) that skipped past Pirates goalie Fischer Schiemer — to extend their lead to 4-0.
A freshman connection resulted in the third score as midfielder Chase Wright (3g, 3a) fed a pass into attack Caleb Britton (3g, 1a) for a turnaround finish in the left crease before freshman attack Elijah Britton assisted Wright on the fourth score with 20 seconds to go on a man advantage. After having his first shot rejected, Wright picked up the rebound and stuck the point-blank put-back.
"Coming in, we knew we had 15 freshmen who had never seen the field and it was big for them to really step up to the level and perform their best," Lombardozzi said. "We have a new offense this season so we had to focus on sticking to the basics and the fundamentals and you saw that out on the field and that's what translated to those goals."
Playing without freshmen projected starters Carter Elliot and Erik Arvesen, two of their most offensive midfielders sidelined by injury, the Flames had other players fill the void on a line that lost all of its starters from last season.
Early in the second quarter, Britton padded Liberty's lead to 5-0 with a high-percentage overhand shot off a short pass from sophomore midfielder Sam King. Forty seconds later, Britton set up freshman midfielder Derrick Esh from behind the net for a rifled shot from the left side into the upper netting.
The Pirates finally got on the scoreboard, netting back-to-back goals over the next 10 minutes. The second was by Jeff O'Brien, who cut through the box and received a pass from midfield linemate Austin Rogers for a quick, point-blank finish on the run to cut Liberty's lead to 6-2, 2:19 before halftime.
But the Flames regained the momentum going into the second half when Lombardozzi took a pass from Esh and whipped a low shot from the top of the box past Schiemer just eight seconds before the break.
Wright started the third quarter with an unassisted score on a dodge move before freshman midfielder Isaac Lozada converted on a similar play and Wright added another for a 10-2 advantage.
Lozada sparked a Flames' attack with 6.7 seconds left in the third by picking up a ground ball and sending an assist to Esh, who drove from the top of the box into the left crease and bounced a shot under tight defensive coverage into the net. After winning the ensuing faceoff, Lombardozzi launched a long pass into cutting sophomore attack Sam Gregory for a turnaround finish at the buzzer, pushing Liberty's lead to 12-2.
"A lot of individual efforts out there make those goals happen," Lombardozzi said. "When one guy scores, it's never just yourself, it's always the whole team."
ECU struck first in the fourth period before the Flames responded when Wright picked up the rebound of his own blocked shot and set up Lombardozzi, who extended the edge to 13-3 with 7:33 remaining. Pirates attack Pat Memmel answered a goal by King before Wright set up Britton for a behind-the-back score with 2:28 to go. Freshman attack Noah Rude capped the scoring with a laser shot from the top of the box.
Liberty starting goalie sophomore Brayden Harriman made nine saves and allowed two goals in the first half before freshman Ryan Reynolds held ECU to two second-half scores. They were supported by freshman defender Grayson Rhyne, who led the Flames with five ground-ball pickups while playing long-stick midfielder in front of sophomore Win McKeever, who shifted back to defense.
"Grayson's a guy who just takes care of the ball and he was responsible for forcing a lot of turnovers," McQuillan said. "Having both him and Win out on the field at the same time was a great option."
The win, Liberty's 24th straight at home, gives it a boost of confidence going into its Feb. 27 contest at No. 16 Michigan State, which will be played indoors on a Monday afternoon.
"We're looking forward to the opportunity and the test and this game was a great precursor to that and we'll hopefully use it as momentum going into practice this week," McQuillan said.
"It should be interesting," Lombardozzi added. "We've never beaten a ranked (MCLA Division I) team on the road, so we're looking forward to getting that out of the books and move on with the season, to show the MCLA what we have in store for them."
(Story by Ted Allen/Liberty Lacrosse)