BLACKSBURG, Va. -- In the inaugural game of the Atlantic Lacrosse Conference (ALC), Liberty's men's lacrosse team opened a 16-6 lead on Virginia Tech by the end of the third quarter before holding on for a 17-13 triumph in regular-season opener for teams on Saturday afternoon.
"That's a good Virginia Tech team, and we are very understanding that that is not going to be the same team we are going to see at the end of April," said Liberty coach Kyle McQuillan. "I expect them to improve a great deal, and we know we can play a lot better than we did today."
Virginia Tech struck first when Hunter Capestany ripped a shot past Flames senior goalie Ryan Reynolds 2:20 into the contest.
The Flames seized a 2-1 lead less than two minutes later when senior attackman Jackson Miller (1g, 4a) dumped a pass from out of the left crease back to senior middie Carter Elliott (2g, 2a), who dodged a defender and rifled a shot into the top right corner of the net.
Junior middie Cameron Carter reset the attack from near midfield before slashing through the Hokies' defense and firing a bounce shot into the lower right corner as the Flames clung to a 3-2 lead after the first quarter.
"It took some time in the first quarter to get into a groove and find ourselves," McQuillan said.
Freshman middle Keaton Mohs (1g, 3GBs) doubled Liberty's advantage to 4-2 with 11:13 left in the second period when dashed around the right side of the box and unleashing a sharp-angled shot into the top left corner.
Virginia Tech knotted the game at 4-4 over the next two and a half minutes before Liberty finished the first half on a 5-0 tear to take control.
Branham put the Flames back on top to stay by receiving a feed from Elliott behind the cage and darting in front for a point-blank finish. Minutes later, after Mohs was knocked down on a shot in the crease, Branham picked up the rebound and fired it past the Hokies' goalie to give Liberty a 6-4 cushion 6:07 before halftime.
After a clutch save by Reynolds, senior defender Reagan Pritchett ignited the Flames' fast-break attack by sprinting the ball out of the defensive zone before dishing it off to Mohs near midfield.
Mohs fed Branham on transition before he spotted Pritchett trailing the play and sent him an entry pass for a point-blank putaway past Virginia Tech goalie Hunter LeClair, stretching the lead to 7-4.
"Ryan had a great game with five saves and seven goals allowed," McQuillan said of Reynolds. "He didn't start off great and had a couple get by him that he typically makes saves on. But in the second and third quarter, he started started seeing the ball really well."
O'Connor extended the advantage to 8-4 with a solo run and submarine shot from the left side of the box just over a minute later before Carter assisted Branham on a high-percentage shot from deep in the right crease just 4 seconds before halftime.
"In the second and third quarters, we started connecting on some of our shots and defensively getting some stands," McQuillan said. "Our 10 man-ride was really effective."
Branham picked up where he left off to 40 seconds into the second half, finishing a feed from Elliott from the left side to make it a 10-4 contest. Just over a minute later, freshman middie Stephen Westlake put away a pass from Miller in the left of the box for an 11-4 lead at the 13:04 mark before Miller forced a steal in Virginia Tech territory and finished a give-and-go pass from Elliott to five the Flames a commanding 12-4 advantage.
Liberty finished the third quarter on a 4-2 run before allowing the Hokies to outscore it 7-1 in the fourth quarter to make it a game again.
"It was definitely a typical Virginia Tech response," McQuillan said. "We were able to create some separation in the second and third quarters, but in the fourth quarter, we did not do what we need to do to close out the game. There is no excuse for letting Virginia Tech battle back into that game like that in the fourth."
Liberty did play several of its reserves late in the game, while the Hokies relied on their starters to stage the comeback.
"We think we've got a lot of depth and guys that are great players past just our starting unit," McQuillan said. "We need to find valuable minutes and getting moments in against an opponent like Virginia Tech is huge. We recognize sometimes it takes some time to build some confidence and it is sink or swim when you get thrown into a game like that. They will have more opportunities in the future and hopefully we'll learn from this and continue to develop them, and our team as whole. We'll continue to get better, and I expect the end-of the year game in April to be a great one."
Liberty won 18-of-29 faceoffs with Jared Milglorie taking 10 out of 16 and fellow juniors Shane Reynolds and Cole Jankowsky winning four each.
The Flames hope to open their home schedule against East Carolina University on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Liberty Lacrosse Field, or a replacement team if ECU is not cleared to play.
Otherwise, they will have an extra week to prepare for a showdown with SELC power Georgia Tech on Saturday, March 20, in Knoxville, Tenn., where they will face host Tennessee on March 21.
by Ted Allen, Liberty University