By Matt Chandik
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 5/5/17
Devin Velekei had been in the situation before, but never with the same stakes on the line.
When he got the ball in the extra frame of the National College Lacrosse League (NCLL) Liberty Conference championship game, the West Chester University senior, by way of Easton High School and Misericordia University, had a pair of overtime game-winners to his name. That being said, he’d never had a chance to send his team to the club Division II national tournament, until…
“Our X attackman passed me the ball and I caught it at the 15, put a little face dodge on my guy and fired one stick side off-hip,” Velekei said. “The next thing I knew, I was getting mobbed.”
That put the thrilling finishing touches on a 8-7 win over Saint Joseph’s, a victory last weekend that sealed the Golden Rams’ spot in the national tournament at the United States Naval Academy. WCU takes on Stevens at 11 a.m. in the quarterfinal, and if the Golden Rams win, they’ll square off with the Rochester Institute of Technology vs. Catholic winner at 5 p.m.
Win that, and they’ll have the chance to win their first national championship since 2013 on Sunday at 11 a.m. The eight-team bracket is comprised of eight league champions, from WCU to Kutztown, Catholic, Louisville, Kent State, Stevens, RIT and Lynchburg.
The Golden Rams expect a lot of themselves. They’ve posted a 17-1 record with their only loss coming to Temple, which plays in Division I. WCU is the No. 1-ranked team in the NCLL, meaning that all eyes will be on them. Head coach Emmett Devlin was on that 2013 team, and he’ll look for a shot at a national title as a player and a coach.
In the past two seasons, WCU bowed out to Saint Joseph’s in that same title game, so this was a measure of sweet revenge. One of the biggest changes for the Golden Rams has been a surplus of seniors. The past two seasons yielded four seniors – combined – but this year’s edition features nine seniors.
“We have senior leadership that we haven’t had in a while,” said team president and senior R.J. Kline, a Marple Newtown alum. “We have the nine seniors now and we have 14 or 15 juniors, so we’re more of a veteran team. We also had more guys try out this season than we’ve ever had before. We had 90 guys sign up in the fall and kept 40. You can’t really recruit, but we’re just getting our name out there.”
The Rams also have make their mark off the field. In late April they held a “Pie-A-Lax Player” for the HEADstrong Foundation on campus and sold a whopping 250 pies. The team also sold dozens of HEADstrong t-shirts in the fundraising project.
It was a humbling experience and we were more than happy to lend a hand in raising funds and awareness for a local organization that truly cares a great deal about the lacrosse community,” Kline said.
Winning so often didn’t hurt the sales effort and the program’s success has helped attract a bumper crop of talent. RJ Zoba, a sophomore, was a standout at West Chester Rustin who drew much interest from top D3 programs. He leads the team with 30 goals and 20 assists. Connor Brown, a Cape Henlopen alumnus, has used his wicked shot to terrorize teams down the right alley to the tune of 30 goals. Velekei has 25 goals and 10 helpers, and players like Jack Veasey (Harriton) and Matt Borchert (Ridley/Cabrini) puff up the Golden Rams’ midfield.
“I’d say that about 25 percent of our guys played D-II or D-III and transferred because they didn’t want that huge commitment,” Kline said. “We practice three times a week, which is nice when you’re coming from a place where you’re practicing five or six times a week.”
Longstick midfielder Todd Cooper (Lower Dauphin) and incoming team president Eric Dunion (West Chester Rustin) anchor a stingy defense that has only yielded double-digit goals twice, with the last coming more than two months ago in the loss to the Owls. Nick Chamberlain (Susquehannock) has made a splash as a freshman, earning the starting job while occasionally getting spelled by fellow freshman Dylan Welsh (Marple Newtown).
Both Velekei and Kline praised the team’s depth at the defensive midfielder spot, a group guided by senior and Avon Grove product Ryan Amanto. Faceoff midfielder Brenton Jocono (Unionville/Gwynedd Mercy) has been crucial to the team’s success, too.
There’s a whole lot to like about the Golden Rams as they try to chase down their second national title in the past five seasons. Kline hopes that WCU’s success will eventually prompt the school to bring the team back to the NCAA level, where it could tap into a deep local talent pool to anchor a team that could compete against the country’s best.
“I’d say 75 percent of our team is from Delco, Chester County and Montgomery County,” Kline said. “We have a few New Jersey and Maryland guys, one guy from Long Island and (Brown) from Delaware, but it’s mostly local guys. Imagine if we had a team at the next level?”
Perhaps another national championship might nudge the Golden Rams’ administration into action.
Tags: West Chester University