This summer, the Hawkeyes’ run to the Mearns Cup title was a story about dedication and commitment. It was a team of 24 gritty, selfless and determined players bent on finishing a job that eluded them in 2021.
“It was awesome. It was just the group of guys we had, character guys, who were fun to be around,” said head coach Dan Coates. “We had a talented team, but I think we just had a bunch of guys who wanted to work. Truly, they cared for each other, and it was pretty special to be around. To be able to coach them was awesome.”
Coates, a veteran of 10 National Lacrosse League seasons, was brought in as the bench boss of the Hawkeyes in 2022 to take over a club that was coming off a second-place finish in the UCBLL. Coates added young talent like goalie John Jacobs, Tyler Gould, Matthew Blythe and Colin Blakeslee. His team also returned scorers Zachary Terry and Nicholas Miller, defenseman Conner Thornton, and transition man Conner Fingar.
The roster he assembled was indicative of his character as they played blue-collar lacrosse the entire season. The time they spent together at practice and in team chats helped guide them to a championship season.
By far the youngest team in the Upstate Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (UCBLL), boasting three 18 year olds, the Hawkeyes completed an incredible campaign by winning the regular season and playoff titles with an 8-3 record.
By capturing the Mearns Cup championship, the Hawkeyes became the second Rochester team to represent the UCBLL at National Championships in California from Aug. 4-6. In 2021, the Armory captured the Mearns Cup and finished second at the National Collegiate Box Series (NCBS) event on the west coast.
This summer, it was the Hawkeyes’ turn to take a shot at bringing home a gold medal. Although falling just short in the national semifinals, the players and coaches said it was a journey they will never forget.
“Honestly, I think this is the most fun I have ever had playing lacrosse,” said Fingar. “Everyone made it a great time, from the coaches down to the players. Everyone got after it and bought in.”
It was Fingar who netted the team’s first goal of the tournament as the Hawkeyes opened the NCBS National Championships with a 9-6 win over the Mid Atlantic Collegiate Lacrosse League champion Grays. Rochester used a late three-goal run to notch their first ever win at the National Collegiate Box Series Nationals Championships.
It was an impressive feat for players and coaches who had left their houses only 20 hours earlier to begin their trek across the country to play in their first game.
“(One of the most memorable things was) the travel. Some of the guys haven’t been out west before,” said Coates. “The first day was such a long day. Some of these guys were up at 2:00 a.m. to get to the airport in Buffalo. (It was amazing) to get a big win to start us off.”
Terry powered the offense with five goals and one assist and notched back-to-back tallies in the fourth quarter to break open a 6-5 game. His two goals in a three-minute span ended a 3-0 Grays’ run which had pulled the Mid Atlantic Collegiate Box Lacrosse League champions within one.
“It feels great to get the first win,” said Terry following the victory. “Just having bounces go your way at the end of the game was the product of hard work.”
The Rochester-based club soared through pool play, defeating the Grays, the Revolution, and eventual repeat champions in the Royals to enter the playoffs unbeaten (3-0) as the top seed. The highlight of the tournament was a first-place showdown against the Royals on Day Two of pool play. Hawkeyes team captain Nicholas Miller’s goal with just four seconds left completed a remarkable comeback, giving the Hawkeyes a 12-11 victory.
“It was such an emotional high,” said Coates. “We had a slow start with our guys. Kyle Meagher, who has been with us all year, played great for us in net. We chipped away at the Royals, who were national champs last year, and to come away with the ‘W’ was awesome.”
The Hawkeyes fell behind 7-2 late in the first half, but the Hawkeyes rallied with two goals in the final minute to get within three. Gould and Blythe scored transition markers 22 seconds apart to send the Royals into halftime with a 7-4 lead.
The Hawkeyes completed the comeback in the fourth quarter by outscoring the Royals 5-2 over the final 15 minutes. After pulling closer in the third at 9-7, Rochester connected twice to open the final frame as Miller and Blakeslee scored to tie the contest at nine. The defending champs, however, would respond with a pair of goals just over a minute apart to take an 11-9 lead.
Like they had done all season long, the Hawkeyes pulled together for a late-game rally. Gould scored his third of the contest at 8:05 of the fourth to get his team within one. Miller then took over, scoring with 28 seconds to play to even things at 11. With the game destined to head to overtime, Matt Heyden got a key loose ball off the faceoff to get the Hawkeyes a timeout with 24.5 left to set up the final play.
With the ball in the stick of Terry, he patiently waited for Miller to get open behind the net. With time ticking away, he fired a pass through two defenders and into Miller’s stick. Miller then promptly dove out from behind the cage and dunked the ball into the upper left corner of the net for the winner.
“Scoring the game-winner against the Royals was a moment I won’t forget, but not because I scored it,” said Miller. “I won’t forget the moment because we never had the lead in the game until that goal. We battled all game, and the coach drew up a great play. I happened to be the guy who scored the goal to win it.”
“What made it worthwhile is that we came out on top because of everyone’s plays that led up to that,” he continued, “from Kyle making stops, winning ground balls, and believing in one another that we could complete the comeback. It was truly an amazing experience. I just did my job, but that goal wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for my teammates setting up the shot for me.”
Meagher finished with 28 saves and evened his NCBS record to 1-1 after playing in the tournament in 2021. Offensively, Terry (5+1) and Miller (2+3) paced the team with a combined 12 points versus the Royals. At the tourney, Terry led the Hawkeyes with 16 goals and four assists in four games, while Miller was second with 10 goals and eight assists.
John Jacobs, who started three games, went 2-1 with a 7.33 goals-against average. This summer, he finished with a 7-1 record after going 5-0 during the UCBLL season. Jacobs, who hails from Akwesasne, vowed that the Hawkeyes would be back next summer to challenge for the championship.
“It has been amazing. You can’t get any better than these guys,” he said. “We battled all season long; the ball didn’t go our way, but we will be back for sure.”
Jacobs and his teammates fell one win shy of reaching the NCBS Finals and a date with the Royals. In the semifinals, the Hawkeyes faced the Revolution for the second time in two days. In the first encounter, the Mearns Cup champions scored 14 times in the second half to dominate the Revolution 18-5. The Hawkeyes used nine different goal scorers and received another solid effort in goal from Jacobs (26 saves).
In the Semifinals, the Hawkeyes again soared out in front of the Revolution, this time racing out to leads of 3-1 and 5-3. But, unlike the previous day, the Revolution stormed back each time. Trailing 6-5 entering the second half, Rochester started clicking again on offense as Nick Cartmill, Blythe, and Terry scored to give their club an 8-6 advantage three minutes into the third. Yet, the Connecticut champs would tie the contest at eight. In the fourth, the teams traded goals to open the final frame before the Revolution added two late goals to earn the win.
Despite the loss, Terry and Miller put the season in perspective as two of the veteran leaders of the young and improved Hawkeyes.
“It is not how it should have ended or how we expected it to end,” Terry said. “(But) the fact we made it here and the opportunity we got was something to be thankful for. After last season, this year was a blessing.”
“Moving up here and playing up here, and getting to play with a draft pick from the (NLL Buffalo) Bandits, and John (Jacobs) who travels five hours, was great,” he added. “All the guys came together no matter where they were from.”
For Miller, the semifinal game was his last in the UCBLL and NCBS, having graduated from St. John Fisher University. A 2021 draft of the Buffalo Bandits, he will set his sights on playing in the National Lacrosse League after completing his two-year stint with the Hawkeyes.
“It has been a crazy two years, to say the least, going from the first year and not making it here. But the guys who came back had a goal in mind,” he said. “We didn’t finish how we wanted to this year, but we couldn’t have been any closer as a squad. We battled hard, and I couldn’t be any prouder.”