Head in his hands as he leaned on his knees, Jacksonville senior Logan Sullivan sat on the wet turf as the fog crept across the field Friday night. His high school career was over. Nearby teammates laid on their backs. Others slammed their helmets down.
The Cardinals, the highest seeded team in North Carolina’s Southeast, were devastated, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
It won’t be easy after seeing No. 3 Chapel Hill rally from a five-goal deficit – helped by three goals during a three-minute unreleasable penalty – to escape with an 11-10 victory in the third round of the NCHSAA 1-A/2-A/3-A boys’ lacrosse playoffs.
The start of the match was delayed about 90 minutes because of heavy rains and thunderstorms.
Chapel Hill (11-9) will travel to Carrboro (14-1) on Tuesday for a state semifinal game. Carrboro beat Conference 6 champion Cedar Ridge 10-9 Friday night.
The Cardinals, the Conference 2 champions who finished their year 15-4, head into the offseason wondering what might have been on a night that saw them lead 9-4 with 3:30 left in the third period. From there, Chapel Hill outscored the Cardinals 7-1 in the final 13:23 to win.
“It’s tough,” Jacksonville coach Thomas Stellwagen said. “It’s not anyone’s fault. I’m not going to say we weren’t the better team. I give it to them. Making that long bus ride and to have their backs against the wall the way they did and to fight back, we gave them openings to fight back, but they came ready. It’s rough.”
With the score knotted 10-10, senior Kyle Healy took a pass from Jake Johnson in front of the net and fired it home from about 15 yards out past goalkeeper Alex Leifheit, who made 13 saves. Neither team scored again.
“I realized they were pressing out a little bit. So I passed it off and we inverted,” Healy said. “As they went to double the ball I kind of just floated out in front of the goal and they gave me the ball and I shot it. That’s about all there is to it.”
While Sullivan scored a hat trick in the opening quarter, the match was tied 3-3 heading into the second period. The Cardinals led 6-4 at halftime on goals by Jan Irish Ligasan with 5:11 left and frehsman Joshua Williams with 43 seconds left. It was Williams’ first goal, and it was the first two-goal lead of the match for the Cardinals, who never trailed until the final quarter.
The Cardinals made it 9-4 on two goals by Lee sandwiched around one by Sullivan.
But with the Tigers having edged to within 9-6, the Cardinals went a man down for three minutes when Tavian Cooley was called for an illegal body check on Javon Wells with 9:00 left in the fourth quarter. Wells stayed down on the turf for several minutes before walking off on his own power.
At 6-foot-3, Cooley towers over most lacrosse players, sometimes by half a foot or more, which can make some of his hits look worse than they are. Regardless, he was called for the penalty, giving Chapel Hill three minutes to score as many goals as they could.
“You’ve got to take the calls you’re getting that night,” Stellwagen said. “A lot of times when you go back and look at film it was both ways. They called that, but we probably got away with a lot of them as well. You can never blame it one that.
“(But) it’s sort of the MO of us. We’ve been getting in the box a little bit too much this year. It’s been something where we work ourselves into a bad situation but then we work ourselves out of a bad situation. But it wasn’t in the cards tonight.”
Chapel Hill coach Brent Voelkel said there was “no question” the three-minute penalty was a pivotal moment.
“We were down 9-4 and it looked kind of bleak. That is a very, very athletic team,” Voelkel said of JHS. “But my kids didn’t quit. Three minutes is a lot, and we took advantage of it.”
The coach’s son, Sean, scored 24 seconds into the penalty off an assist from Duncan Tart. Then the pair reversed roles to make it 9-8 with 7:03 left, with Tart scoring from almost parallel to the goal. The Tigers then tied it 9-9 on a goal by Healey with 7 seconds left in the penalty.
With both teams at full strength, Chapel Hill took its first lead at 5:16 on a goal by Forest Pratson, who camped out near the goal mouth, took a pass from T.J. Malloy and rifled it home. But JHS responded. Chase Wood snared a diagonal pass from Kyle Lee about 10 yards out to tie it up 10-10 with 4:43 left.
After Healy’s go-ahead goal, however, the Tigers controlled play for much of the rest of the match and played keepaway in the final 2:23 for the win.
“I’m so proud of my kids,” coach Voelkel said. “They showed a lot of heart and a lot of grit.”
Chapel Hill 3 1 1 6 – 11
Jacksonville 3 3 3 1 – 10
Chapel Hill: Voelkel 3, Pratson 2, Healy 2, Tart 2, Wells, Johnson. Jacksonville: Sullivan 4, K. Lee 3, W. Williams, Ligasan, J. Williams, Wood.
Chapel Hill: Malloy 3, Johnson 2, Healy, Pratson, Tart, Voelkel. Jacksonville: Leyble, W. Williams, K. Lee.
Chapel Hill: Hornik (14 saves); Jacksonville: Leifheit (13 saves) and Liquori (0 saves).
Chapel Hill: 11-9, at Carrboro on Tuesday in regional semifinal. Jacksonville: 15-4, season complete.