Las Vegas Nevada is a town of winners and losers. Each year millions of people flock to the Desert City of Sin to try their luck at the world famous Vegas casinos. Each year the vast majority of the city’s visitors return home with empty pockets, a paycheck or two donated to Donald Trump, and a new found appreciation of the old phrase What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.
For the Utah Valley men’s lacrosse team however, they can return home having at least broken even. For UVU what happened in Vegas just may mean a lot to the playoff committee when nationals roll around come May.
UVU loaded the buses early Friday morning for the six hour southward trip down I-15, bound for the annual Lax Coaches vs. Cancer charity lacrosse tournament in Southern Nevada.
The young Wolverine team- comprised of a high number of freshman and sophomores, and with a new coaching staff for 2016- came into the weekend hungry and looking to make a statement. Coming off an unispiring 2015 campaign, the Wolverines quickly settled into the role of MCLA’s biggest enigma of the early spring, having knocked off defending National Champion Grand Canyon State in the season opener, only to fall short against #11 Arizona in Tucson. With a win over Montana and a loss to NCAA competitor Westminster, UVU entered the weekend ready for a test and ready to answer.
The test began in the form of tournament host UNLV. The physical rough and tumble Rebels entered the contest with a 2-3 record; boasting big wins over Utah and San Diego State, with a close loss to Brigham Young.
UVU showed no early signs of bus-ride stiffness, as the Wolverines drew first blood less than four minutes into the first quarter. The point came off an unassisted goal from Justin Haws. The deep shot made it past UNLV goalie Cian O’Donnell and sparked an offensive explosion for the visiting team that included another four goals within the next four minutes of play, and culminated in a 5-0 lead with Haws’s 2nd goal at the 08:21 mark of the opening period.
The hot run put UVU up 5-1 going into the 2nd quarter, but perhaps depleted the gas tank for a time, as the hometown Rebels answered with a 5-1 run of their own on the strength of four man-up goals.
The apparent early blowout now took the shape of a nail-biter with both teams putting sixes on the scoreboard by halftime.
UNLV earned their first lead of the contest forty seconds into the 2nd half on a low shot that just squeaked by Wolverine keeper Shawn Rowley. The teams traded the next four points, before the Utah Valley returned to early game suave with three goals in just over one minute to bring the lead back to two. The Rebels countered to cut the count down to a single goal entering the 4th.
From there on however, the Wolverines were able to take advantage of UNLV’s shallow lack of roster depth as the smothering UVU defense allowed only eight shots on goal. FIVE of which were saved by Rowley in route to a shutout quarter.
“(UNLV) is a very physical team” UVU head coach Brae Burbidge noted after the game “we stuck to a gameplan, took our time, came out with a great win.”
UVU Senior Fred Davis collected the insurance policy on the W, netting two goals off two nice assists from Shane Weigman and Tanner Marsh in the waning minutes to secure a 13-10 win. Davis matcheded teammates Haws and Jake Stout in the hat trick and they were joined in a scoring column by Chad Madsen (2), Casey James, and Tanner Porter. For the game, Rowley locked-down 12 saves with the Wolverines putting together an excellent team effort at 20/25 face-off wins and 53 ground balls to UNLV’s 31.
The following day would provide a big challenge for the team as they clashed with #1 ranked Chapman late Saturday afternoon.
For the Wolverines, it was already their 2nd time this season taking on a top ranked opponent, and 4th time clashing with the top ten. UVU appeared unintimidated with the nation’s toughest schedule, relishing the underdog role.
Said Burbidge “(this schedule) is making us better.” With a slate of games in a conference that placed 3 at-large bids to the national tournament last spring, the road doesn’t get any easier from here on out. “Everybody has learned something, we have better confidence, and greater understanding.”
The team echoed their first year coach’s confidence under the stadium lights of Vegas suburb Henderson Nevada, playing with a noticeable swagger from opening face-off to the final bell.
Chapman, coming off a thrilling overtime defeat of BYU the night before, and looking to remain perfect against teams from the Beehive state used an early game run to gain a sizable advantage over the Wolverines.
A Tanner Marsh goal at the 11:09 mark of the opening period would prove to be the only points scored by UVU for the first 15 minutes. Despite beating the top team in face-offs, ground balls, time of possession and most other measurable stats.
The undefeated Panthers were able to capitalize on some early Wolverine miscues- including seven turnovers- to build a 6-1 lead.
For the next two quarters of gameplay, the teams tangled in a virtual deadlock as UVU continued their dominance in the face-off and groundball game. Justin Haws, Jake Kelly, and Chad Madsen all contributed goals to the approval of a large gathering of UVU fans in attendance to make the score just 4-9 in favor of the Panthers.
The #1 team in the country showed they’re well deserving of the ranking however, continuing to capitalize on the young UVU team’s mistakes in route to a big 4th quarter.
Madsen gathered an impressive 2nd straight two goal game with a shot at the 6:31 mark, providing the only offense for the Wolverines within the final 15 minutes as Chapman carried away the 13-5 victory.
“We played an excellent game against an excellent team” Burbidge stated after the match, while noting a few mistakes his squad could’ve avoided that may have turned the tide. UVU claimed sizable advantages in almost all of the game’s stats.
In the end the Wolverines may not have returned to Orem with a jackpot win in Las Vegas. But one could easily argue they did better than just break even afterall.
Demonstrating that they will beat the teams they are supposed to beat, and showing that they will compete with anybody they come up against, UVU defied the odds and indeed returned from the City of Lights richer than when they started.
They get a chance to put those riches on the line again this Thursday when they visit in state rival Utah; a emotional rivalry that game Burbige says he fully expects to be all but a fist fight.
The Wolverines have a few days to prepare for that battle. In the meantime they should rest easy knowing that in the eyes of the committee, this time what happened in Vegas, will not stay in Vegas.