The Georgia Swarm defeated the Rochester Knighthawks in dramatic fashion, 12-11, in preseason action Saturday night at the Blue Cross Arena in front of over 9,600 fans.
Trailing 10-9 with less than two minutes remaining, the Swarm caught a break when Rochester committed a minor penalty, which resulted in a game-tying goal from Shayne Jackson on the power play. Shortly after, Ethan O’Connor tracked down a loose ball and raced up the floor to create a fastbreak opportunity where he sunk the game-winning goal with just over a minute to play.
The game would see two more goals shortly after, an empty-netter from Jordan Houtby to momentarily extend the Swarm’s lead to 12-10, followed by a Rochester goal with 11 seconds left. Fortunately for the Swarm, its defensive unit closed the door on the game’s final possession to secure the victory.
“We’re really happy with it,” Swarm head coach Ed Comeau said. “Unfortunately it doesn’t count in the regular season standings, but we’ll take the win, the lessons that we learned, and try to build upon it moving forward.”
Saturday’s preseason game featured five of the Top 6 picks from the 2015 NLL Draft. Four of those selections resided on the Swarm’s bench in Lyle Thompson, Jesse King, Chad Tutton and Randy Staats. King finished the game with two goals, which included a highlight-reel, behind-the-back goal after he caught a one-handed feed from Staats in the fourth quarter. The goal gave the Swarm a 9-7 advantage at the time; Rochester would respond back with three unanswered goals to pull ahead 10-9 late in the game.
Georgia found a way to win on the road however, which is an encouraging sign for one of the league’s youngest teams.
“Our guys were really composed and I think we’ve got some good veteran leadership who have studied the waters,” Comeau said. “That’s what we need to do in those situations. Lacrosse is a game of swings in momentum and we have to make sure we manage those, both from the coaches, but more importantly from within the team. Our veteran guys did a great job, and we stuck with it, and came out with a win.”
There may not have been any better example of staying composed than from O’Connor, who committed a five-minute major penalty in the fourth that helped swing momentum in Rochester’s favor. O’Connor made up for his mishap however with the game-winning goal on a beautiful bounce shot past Rochester goalie Matt Vinc. The score left O’Connor with a smile on his face afterward, but also with the realization that it came in the preseason.
“We’re just trying to get better from here,” O’Connor said. “This goal really means nothing, this game means nothing. You’re just learning about the other team, you’re learning to bounce back as a team. That’s what we’ll take from it.”
While O’Connor is entering his third season in the league, Saturday was the first NLL action for King, who also played a crucial role in the victory. King told reporters afterward that playing with his rookie teammates was “a lot of fun” and a “dream come true.”
“We responded really well out there throughout the whole entire game, even when we were getting down a little bit,” King said. “We just battled through the adversity, battled through the crowd and played really well toward the end.”
Georgia found itself in an early 2-0 hole, but responded nicely with a three-goal run in the first, which featured goals from Joe Maracle, Josh Gillam and L. Thompson. The Swarm led 4-3 at the end of the first, but trailed 5-4 at halftime. Both Maracle and Jackson finished the night with two goals apiece.
Georgia will conclude its second weekend of training camp with a practice Sunday afternoon in Toronto. With several tough decisions looming prior to the Dec. 18 final-roster submission, Saturday’s game certainly allowed the coaching staff the chance to see how certain players would react in a hostile, road environment.
“We got lots of guys some minutes, and were able to play our whole roster,” Comeau said. “It gave us coaches the chance to look at some guys, and gave guys an opportunity to compete for a job at the NLL level.”
Along with the frantic finish, it was the crowd and the ceremonial faceoff that everyone was talking about Saturday night.
“This is some of the most fun we have because the guys are loose and you come out here and hear how loud the fans are,” said Knighthawks goalie Matt Vinc. “Some of the rookies are getting their first taste of the type of atmosphere The Blue Cross Arena has. It’s a fun experience to have an exhibition game with so many fans.”
Vinc went the distance in goal and made 41 saves, which included shutting out the Swarm in the second quarter. One of the rookies that played well in front of Vinc was second overall pick Graeme Hossack.
“I loved the atmosphere. It was great to play in,” he said. “It got really loud. I heard them shout my name a couple of times. It’s a great group of fans.”
The Knighthawks were led offensively by Jordan Hall, who scored three goals and added four assists. He completed the hat trick at 6:55 of the third to make it 7-5. Hall also picked up two of his team-high four assists in the fourth quarter. Hall commented on the great holiday crowd that came out to support the Knighthawks.
“I hope every game is as full as it was tonight,” he said. “It went down to the wire, so I think the fans were really into it.”
Rochester pulled within one on Cory Vitarelli’s goal with 11.4 to play and had a chance to tie the game, but a last-second shot was batted away. Vitarelli (2+2) finished with four points to tie Joe Resetarits (1+3) for the second most points on the team. Craig Point also notched a pair of goals.
It was Scott Campbell and Point that got the game started with back-to-back goals just two and half minutes into the contest. It was an electric beginning to the night, which followed one of the most emotional starts to a game in team history.
As the crowd watched the ceremonial faceoff, they were shocked to see returning soldier, Sgt. Jesse Fuller, surprise his three kids before the game. After taking the ceremonial draw, dressed as a Knighthawks player, he turned to Garrett, Keira and Ella to tell them daddy was home. It was an incredible reunion, which was arranged by his wife, Karen, and the Knighthawks front office. Sgt. Fuller has been away since February and serving in Kuwait with the Army National Guard since July.
“I missed them a lot,” he told the Democrat & Chronicle. “This was 100 percent worth it.”