BALTIMORE – There was really only one way for it to end.

After an opening 30 minutes of play in which neither Mercyherst nor Adelphi led by more than a single tally, it was only right that the game end with Panthers junior midfielder Kieran Riegel streaking in on goal with a chance to tie the game.

In the end, however, Lakers goalkeeper stopped Riegel’s shot, the Lakers sent the ball back up the field, and Mercyhurst won the first NCAA championship in program history with a 9-8 victory against Adelphi.

“I am very proud to coach these kids,” Lakers head coach Chris Ryan said. “We are saying goodbye to 13 seniors and we were glad that we could send those 13 guys out with a championship.”

“I’m very proud of the way our players played throughout the game,” Adelphi head coach Gordon Purdie said. “I’m proud of the way they prepared. I want to definitely respect that.”

After both teams pulled off upsets last week in the semifinal round of the four-team Division II tournament – Mercyhurst against C.W. Post, Adelphi against Limestone – the Lakers and Panthers showed themselves to be well-matched in the first 30 minutes, trading goals throughout as Mercyhurst midfielder Ian Wild and Adelphi attackman Joe Vitale scored two goals apiece. However, with two minutes to go in the half and the game tied at four goals apiece, the Lakers patiently moved the ball, finally putting it on the stick of Kevin Coholan, who beat junior goalkeeper Eric Janssen with two seconds to go.

“I knew that we needed to make a play,” said attackman Brian Scheetz, who set Coholan up for the shot, “and I tried to get our best shooter the ball with time running out.”

“We played a terrific 2:26 of defense,” Janssen said. “We went into a goal package, which we set up for this game, and it was a zone. Everyone played great, they fed the ball from either behind or the side, [Coholan] dropped his stick. I didn’t step to the ball well enough.”

Perhaps emboldened by the late strike to close out the first half, the Lakers came out and scored three of the first four goals in the third quarter, eventually building a 9-6 lead with 2:15 to go in the third. The Panthers, however, didn’t wilt.

“I always felt that we had a chance to be in this game,” Purdie said. “Even with two goals down, I grabbed Coach [Joe Catalanotti] and I said, ‘My heart is racing.’ He said, ‘Relax, relax, relax, we’re going to be OK, there’ll be another day.’ What I truly meant was, ‘I believe we have a chance to come back here.”

Sure enough, the Panthers got a goal from Tommy Susko with 1:22 left in the third quarter, then came back to within one with 6:29 left in the game on junior attackman Danny Blau’s 26th goal of the season. Adelphi won the ensuing faceoff, but couldn’t beat Nash for the tying goal. Still, the Lakers would get that one more shot, getting the ball back off a Cameron McLean turnover with 15 seconds to go and putting it on Riegel’s stick.

“We’ve ran that drill in practice more times than I can remember,” Purdie said. “Kieran’s a great player. He often makes that shot. He shot a bounce shot. He put on a very nice shot and the goalkeeper made a great save. My hat’s off to Kieran. He’s a great player. Unfortunately, that ball didn’t get through.”

Statistically, Nash didn’t have his best day on Sunday, as his eight saves on 16 shots faced represented a step backwards from his 11-save effort in last week’s 14-4 win against the two-time defending NCAA champions. (“It was tough to see the ball and I don’t have a lot of experience playing front of a large crowd,” Nash said.)  However, when the game was on the line, Nash was right where he needed to be.

“To be honest,” Nash said, “I didn’t want to have to make a save like that to end the game. I just read the guy’s shoulders and followed his stick and the ball all the way through. It went off my chest and we cleared it out and held on.”

Nash’s coach, meanwhile, didn’t want to look any more than the goalkeeper wanted to be in the situation. Ryan lived through a moment like that once already, in the 2007 championship game against LeMoyne. In that game, the Lakers led after three quarters, only to lose when the Dolphins’ Michael McDonald scored with one second left on the clock.

Caught up in the closing moments of this year’s title game, Ryan didn’t let thoughts of 2007 enter his mind, but the situation at hand was nerve-wracking enough.

“I was in sheer panic at that point,” Ryan said. “At that point, the game is in Zach’s hands. Andrew Wagner is running to the ball as fast as he can to stop the ball, but we’ve got a great kid in position to make a great save and seal this thing up.”

With the win, Mercyhurst becomes the first new program to join the ranks of Division II champions since Le Moyne won its first DII title in 2006. Having represented Mercyhurst both on the football field and as a lacrosse player, Wild – the game’s Most Outstanding Player with four goals – is anticipating a special feeling when the team returns to Erie and rings the Sister Damien Bell, the school’s traditional punctuation on major athletic victories.

“It’s going to be great,” Wild said. “It’s a great feeling. Mercyhurst is a great school. It deserves the recognition, and it feels great to give it back to the school.”