Last season, the Washington Stealth finished 4-12 and had the National Lacrosse League's worst record. On Saturday night in the 2013 season opener, they beat the league's defending champions.
Athan Iannucci's goal with 1:23 to play in the fourth quarter proved to be the game-winning score in the Stealth's 13-12 victory over the Rochester Knighthawks.
"We are back," Stealth head coach Chris Hall said. "We couldn't ask for a better (victory) than the defending champs coming in here, and they are a great lacrosse team. They scored some beautiful goals. I almost found myself clapping a few times on the bench because it was like, 'man oh man, that was beautiful.' But it was the wrong team that did it. It was beautiful lacrosse. But obviously I'm pretty pleased with what happened tonight for us."
Both teams got off to a slow start offensively, but Rhys Duch got the Stealth on the board first less than two minutes into the game. Rochester, though, made it difficult on the "Big Three" of Duch, Iannucci and Ratcliff to get going in the first half.
With the Stealth needing a member of their surrounding cast to step up, Cliff Smith came to the rescue, scoring three goals in the first half to record his first-career hat trick.
"It feels pretty good," Smith said. "I've never really found a groove here I don't think so far. Last year, getting hurt and then getting traded here at the (trade) deadline the year before, I think I was really looking forward to getting a full year in here. So obviously, it feels really good."
Smith said aggressiveness and a little luck played a role in his career night.
"I think I was taking it hard to the net more than I would have in the past," Smith said. "I think sometimes you just get lucky, too, right? Ones that maybe weren't falling before were falling tonight."
Whatever the reason, Hall predicted that Smith would have a breakout season before the year started. Through one game he appears to be right.
"I have always thought he was a marvelous player watching him and then having the pleasure of coaching him my opinion never changed," Hall said.
The Stealth led 3-1 after the first quarter, but Rochester scored five of the next six goals to take a 6-4 advantage late in the second quarter. Faced with the pressure of going into halftime trailing, the Stealth got goals from Iannucci and Smith to knot things up at 6-6 heading into halftime.
It seemed every time the Knighthawks extended to a lead in the game, the Stealth always answered right back with a goal.
"They get to two and then they get to three and then you are starting to scramble around a little bit," Hall said. "Great players do great things and that's why they are here. They raised their level of play to make sure we got ourselves back in it. So I was pretty happy to see them do what we expect them to do."
In the first half, the Big Three accounted for just two goals -- one from Duch and one from Iannucci. However, they came alive in the second half. Duch scored two more to record a hat trick. Ratcliff added two goals and Iannucci added the game-winner. In total, the Big Three accounted for seven of the Stealth's 13 goals.
"I think they are starting to develop some pretty good chemistry and they know that any one of them can do it," Hall said. "I really think that helps us spread the defense and they are starting to understand that."
One of the goals that didn't come from the Big Three was a milestone moment for one of four Stealth rookies in action on Saturday. Mitch McMichael rebounded a missed shot and beat goalkeeper Matt Vinc for the go-ahead goal with 5:46 to play in the game. McMichael's first career NLL goal gave the Stealth their first lead since the second quarter.
"It was awesome," McMichael said. "I was so jacked up after I scored that goal. I was dizzy coming off when I was going to the bench I was just celebrating so much. I was just lucky enough to be in the right position at the right time to pick up that ground ball and put it in the net.
The Knighthawks came back to score a power-play goal on just the Stealth's second penalty of the night with 1:53 to play in the game, tying the score at 12.
That set the stage for Iannucci, who scored the game-winner 30 seconds later. Iannucci drove left to right and sent a diving shot past Matt Vinc. The goal was reviewed as all goals are in the final two minutes, but held up upon replay.
"The play was an 'iso' for me out of the corner and there was an extra guy down low. ... once I started going to the net I just kind of had too much momentum and just split through the middle of them and took a jump and hoped for the best," Iannucci said.
In a league that is so competitive, the Stealth learned last year just how important it is to win close games like they played on Saturday.
"We just want to make the most of it," Iannucci said. "We don't want those games to come back to haunt us at the end of the year."
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com.
Stealth 13, Knighthawks 12
Rochester 1 5 3 3 -- 12
Washington 3 3 2 5 -- 13
1st Quarter -- Scoring: WAS -- Duch Goal (Buchanan) 1:46; ROC -- Powless Goal (Dawson, Walters) 6:03; WAS -- Beers Goal (Grimes) 6:59; WAS -- Smith Goal (Grimes) 11:19. Penalties: Vitarelli, ROC (Illegal Cross Checking, Minor, 2 min) 13:52. Goalie Changes: None.
2nd Quarter -- Scoring: ROC -- Walters Goal (Jamieson) 2:13; ROC -- Campbell Goal (SH) 7:13; ROC -- Accursi Goal (Walters, Powless) 8:20; WAS -- Smith Goal (Moleski) 8:33; ROC -- Self Goal (McCready) 10:23; ROC -- Vitarelli Goal (Jamieson) 11:29; WAS -- Iannucci Goal (Duch) 13:40; WAS -- Smith Goal (Duch) 14:17. Penalties: McCready, ROC (High-Sticking, Major, 5 min) 3:48; , WAS (Too Many Men, Minor, 2 min) 7:28. Goalie Changes: None.
3rd Quarter -- Scoring: ROC -- Vitarelli Goal (Point) 3:50; WAS -- Hill Goal (Smith) 3:59; ROC -- Jamieson Goal (Dawson) 8:59; WAS -- Ratcliff Goal (Buchanan) 13:41; ROC -- Vitarelli Goal (Powless, Jamieson) 14:11. Penalties: None. Goalie Changes: None.
4th Quarter -- Scoring: ROC -- Keogh Goal (Dawson, Powless) 1:28; WAS -- Duch Goal (Smith) 2:07; ROC -- Walters Goal (Self) 2:20; WAS -- Duch Goal (Smith, Buchanan) 2:48; WAS -- Ratcliff Goal (Buchanan, Smith) 3:21; WAS -- McMichael Goal 9:14; ROC -- Powless Goal (PP) (Jamieson) 13:07; WAS -- Iannucci Goal (Smith, Duch) 13:37. Penalties: Sorensen, WAS (Minor, 2 min) 12:08. Goalie Changes: None.
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