The Rustin girls lacrosse sideline was full of smiles and laughter, pats on the back and congratulations aplenty.
Never mind that the team just lost on a final-minute goal.
Rustin (2-3) came back from a five-goal deficit early and later scored three goals in the final 2:30, but the effort wasn’t enough as the Golden Knights fell to Downingtown East (6-0) Thursday morning in West Chester, 15-14.
“I have to give the girls credit. They didn’t hang their heads,” Rustin coach Laura Capuano said. “They didn’t give up. They came back and fought for every goal, every ground ball, every defensive position. I’m very proud of them.”
Capuano’s team had every reason to hang their heads early on Thursday. The Golden Knights dominated possession of the ball for the first 15 minutes of the contest, but quickly found themselves in a 6-1 hole.
The Cougars made the best early of what little time they held ball and scored a goal on six of their first seven possessions by using a variety of fast breakouts that put the ball on net quickly and longer, elaborate set pieces where the team would bunch at the top of the circle while the ball carrier would work from behind the net.
“We were bummed,” Golden Knight Meghan Miller said.
At about the 10-minute mark, Capuano called a timeout to reorganize the team she said she didn’t recognize.
“You guys can totally do it,” Miller remembered her coach saying.
A timeout speech gave Rustin energy and stalled a bit of the momentum East carried. The Golden Knights outscored the Cougars 4-1 – exclamated by a goal from right in the keepers face with 1 second left in the half– and ended the half down 7-5.
At halftime, Capuano reiterated the same sentiments she harped on during the team’s timeout.
“Work the clock, get position, win every draw,” Capuano said she told her team. “Work on the basics.”
Less than four minutes into the second half, the comeback was complete when Erin Stuhlmiller found twine from the front of the circle to bring the score to 8-8.
“It was a very poor performance by our team,” East coach Caitlin Barbakoff said, before conceding, “A win’s a win.”
Emily Solenberger and Ashley Poli led the way for East, each with four goals scored.
East’s win was again in jeopardy when Rustin closed a three-goal gap in the final 2:30. At the 2:30 mark, Golden Knight Emily Hubley took an opposing stick to the shoulder and after a play stoppage fired a shot past Cougar goalie Megan Fratoni.
Exactly one minute later, the refs again gave the Golden Knights possession when Fratoni was given the ball a teammate without the ball being put in play first, a rule violation that results in a turnover. When the ball was turned over, Mikayla Doane found herself standing alone in front of Fratoni. AJ McCullough quickly tossed the ball the Doane who easily scored to draw the score to 14-13.
The comeback was completed 30 seconds later on a Miller goal after the refs again called a foul on the Cougars.
“We gave Rustin every opportunity to win this game,” Barbakoff said.
Still, the Cougars weren’t without a late heroic of their own. East gained possession off the next draw, and Kelly Devlin finally put a stake in Rustin’s upset bid when she scored with 28 seconds remaining.
East won the final draw, and even with the game seemingly over, Rustin fought for possession and chased the Cougars as the final seconds ticked away, which Capuano attribute to the team’s shift in mindset.
But Rustin’s comeback wasn’t purely due in part to a mental shift.
Miller ended the game with six goals – four in the second half.
“She did great,” Capuano said. “She’s fast and she recognized her opportunities.”
The small-but-speedy Golden Knight sliced and diced her way up field, sprinting around Cougar defenders who did their best to chop at the forwards stick.
Try as they did, East had no answer for Miller, who at one point used a nifty spin around several East defenders at the top of the keeper’s circle and rocketed a shot past Fratoni.
“I just wanted it so bad,” Miller said. “I just put my mind to it. When I had the chance, I’d just go and take it.”
In their own net, the Golden Knights were forced to start JV netminder Natalie Giuffre in place of their usual goalie who was on vacation.
Giuffre looked to be in over her head early as East easily found the back of the net from strange angles. But the young goalie found confidence as the game went on and even stopped a 3-0 breakaway attempt when Cougar Haley Nelson fired a shot that Giuffre slapped away.
“She did awesome,” Capuano said. “We kind of rallied around her.”
Doane also had a strong outing and finished the game with four goals.
But in the end Rustin’s rally fell just short of a major upset.
“Now we just want to progress from here,” Miller said.
While the Rustin team celebrated its effort in spite of the loss, the moment begged to question: Is there such thing as a moral victory?
“Yes, and that was a great one,” Capuano said with a smile of her own.