GETTYSBURG, Pa. – Since the Ursinus College men's lacrosse program came into existence 18 years ago, two glaring holes have lingered on its resume: The Bears had never beaten Gettysburg, and they had never won a Centennial Conference championship.
You can cross both off the list now.
Senior goalie Nick Kirk racked up a championship game-record 22 saves at the head of a herculean defensive effort, turning aside one cage-bound shot after another to lead No. 14 Ursinus to a 10-8 victory over the 8th-ranked Bullets and its first CC title. The Bears, who had lost all 20 meetings with Gettysburg, finally got over the hump and made champions out of a group that came in with a new coach and low expectations.
Ursinus had come agonizingly close to knocking off Gettysburg in recent years, most notably in 2015, when Gettysburg won three head-to-head meetings by a total of four goals. The Bears' aggregate heartache included a one-goal loss in the CC title game and a double-overtime defeat in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
But against the backdrop of one of the most hallowed sites in American history, the Bears fittingly waged a back-and-forth battle against the titans of the Centennial Conference, giving no quarter to a side in search of its 16th league crown. Almost one score of years after its inception, Ursinus now can finally count itself among the elite.
Junior Ben Minardi, the hero of Wednesday's victory at Franklin & Marshall, continued a string of clutch performances with a hat trick of goals to match McClure, whose marker at the end of a highlight-reel sequence put the Bears ahead for good in the final seconds of the third quarter. Sophomore Hakan Atillasoy and freshman Tommy Reinhart each netted a pair of goals and added an assist.
Senior Alex Middleman, junior Nolan Sachs, and freshman Ben Goetz each had four ground balls and two caused turnovers as part of a relentless defensive effort that killed off three Gettysburg extra-man opportunities and stifled the Bullets to just a single goal after the hosts tied it at 7 with 13:19 to play in the third.
Kirk stole the show, collecting 15 of his record-breaking 22 saves after halftime to secure tournament MVP honors. The senior, who made 17 saves in the semifinal at F&M, saved his best game for the biggest of moments, stonewalling Gettysburg from point-blank on a number of occasions and keeping the high-powered hosts at arm's length.
Kirk made the save of the year late in the third quarter, racing back 30 yards to defend his own crease after a turnover and dropping down to parry away wide-open shot by an on-rushing Bullet.
The Bears got on the board after a cagey first 11 minutes dotted with a litany of turnovers by both teams. Senior Sam Isola used a beautiful spin move to free himself to find Reinhart, who took the pass down low and ripped a quick shot into the back of the cage to tie the game at 1.
Just 29 seconds later, Minardi fired a low running effort into the bottom right corner to give Ursinus their first lead of the afternoon at 2-1.
Gettysburg scored on its next possession to level the spread, but Reinhart came right back 12 seconds later on a pass from McClure to make it 3-2 and get things rolling after a sloppy start by both sides.
Minari went to a knee to retrieve a pass from Atillasoy behind X, rising quickly to belt a left-handed shot into the top right corner of the net and put the Bears up by a pair with an even 50.0 seconds showing on the first-period clock. Kirk stopped a shot on the doorstep just before the end of the quarter, one of five saves in the frame, to maintain a multi-goal advantage.
Gettysburg capitalized on a transition chance from a clearing turnover by the Bears as Will DeMartin was able to run unimpeded down the middle for an uncontested laser, making it 4-3 at the 9:32 mark. The orange and blue pulled even on a top-shelf rocket by Jack Harvey from the left wing about 90 seconds later, and Tommy Heller found space down low to slide a high shot past Kirk and give the Bullets the lead back just past the midway point of the second.
After an offside penalty on the Bears, Brian Kolen converted the man-up opportunity with a bouncer that made it 6-4 with 4:41 left in the opening half.
Atillasoy stopped the bleeding a minute later with a one-armed wrap-around off the left edge of the cage, ending a four-goal run by the home side and pulling Ursinus within 6-5. The Bears caught a huge break on the ensuing possession, when Reinhart's pass from X ricocheted off McClure's stick and rolled right back over the line to knot the score for a fourth time.
Minardi completed his hat trick a minute into the third quarter, running to his left and sending another low shot past Macmillan as the Bears went back to the top end of the seesaw, but only for 41 seconds as Jack Fletcher answered back for the hosts.
Ursinus' man-down unit came through to hold off a one-minute penalty, and the tables turned when Gettysburg was called for a 30-second pushing infraction, Atillasoy coming around the goal to extend his stick with two arms and dunk one past Macmillan to make it 8-7 with 3:43 to go in the third.
The Bullets looked to have a tying goal gift-wrapped for them after Kirk was scrambling back into the crease following a clearing turnover, but the senior somehow went down to his knees to stone Fletcher and preserve the lead. Fletcher redeemed himself on the next chance, scoring off a re-start to tie it once more with 22.8 ticks to play in the quarter.
Ursinus went back on top off an incredible sequence as junior Noah Frantz launched a pass up the field to McClure, who got through traffic to finish a contested effort as he went to ground and make it 9-8 with 5 seconds left in the period.
McClure potted an insurance tally with 7:49 remaining and the defense took over from there, shutting down each of the Bullets' comeback attempts.
When junior Parker Wolf forced one more Gettysburg turnover (one of 24 on the day), there were still 1.7 seconds left on the clock. But most of the Bears' defensemen already had their hands on their heads – whether from shock, disbelief, or the sweetest combination of both.
By the time those final seconds ticked off the Mussleman Stadium, the players had already begun pouring onto the turf, breaking off into jubilant dogpiles with sticks and gloves flying through the air. First-year head coach Gary Mercadante grabbed assistants Corey Shaffer and Ryan Rohde in a bear hug, one that seemed so unlikely when the squad was picked to finish next-to-last in the CC preseason poll.
This sleuth of Bears, though, ripped up all the forecasts – and many of the program's records – along the way. The culmination of nearly two decades of a lingering, aching desire for glory, they gave the large swaths of traveling fans and alumni the thing they had been desperate for, and who were willing them to achieve it.
The Bears have a few more than 24 hours to bask in the glow before finding out their NCAA Tournament matchup at 9 p.m. on NCAA.com. Ursinus has been there before, in 2015, when the Bears reached the second round before falling to these Bullets in a double-overtime heartbreaker.
The second round has been the apex for the program on the national stage. But this group has overachieved all season … so why not them?