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Jack Goods | The Buffalo News | May 9, 2018

Canisius hosts NCAA Tournament play-in game but faces uphill battle

Canisius College men's lacrosse was a heavy underdog to even make the NCAA Tournament. The Golden Griffins were the lowest seed in the four-team Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament, an accomplishment in itself considering the Griffs were picked to finish sixth in the preseason coaches' poll.

Two overtime winners later, the Golden Griffins are hosting an NCAA tourney game for the first time. They face Robert Morris at 4 p.m. on Wednesday in the NCAA play-in game at Demske Sports Complex. The winner will play No. 1 seed and reigning champion Maryland in the first round.

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"It means the world," said senior long-stick midfielder Blake Rickan, who played high school lacrosse at Williamsville East. "I've got a lot of friends, a lot of people from high school, a lot of family who are looking to come to the game."

Canisius coach Mark Miyashita said it will be nice having players sleep in their own beds, but while the Golden Griffins are the home team, they won't be considered the favorite. Robert Morris has a much higher RPI (19 compared to Canisius' 49) and beat Canisius head-to-head, 11-9, at Demske on April 10. The teams were tied after three quarters in that matchup, but Robert Morris pulled away with two straight goals in the final 2:10.

"They closed out the game a little bit better than we did, but we were neck-and-neck, right there," Miyashita said. "A play here and a play there would have made the difference. ... Knowing we were that close with them gives our guys a little bit of added confidence."

"They say the hardest thing to do is beat a team twice," Rickan said. "We held a lead for a long time in that game and in the fourth quarter, it kind of got away from us. We're ready to play a full 60."

The Colonials defeated Saint Joseph's in overtime in the Northeast Conference Tournament to clinch an automatic qualifier. They are ranked 18th in the latest Inside Lacrosse poll and, as Richmond athletic director and selection committee chair John Hardt told US Lacrosse Magazine, are only in the play-in game instead of Richmond due to geography. On paper, the play-in game consists of the two weakest teams in the field, but Robert Morris has a much stronger resume than the Spiders.

"There's always geographical considerations," Hardt said. "The NCAA wants the committee to limit flights for participating teams and that's certainly the case in the play-in game."

Miyashita said he and his staff were surprised Richmond wasn't the draw -- they even had Richmond film cued up to watch -- but are excited about the opportunity to play a geographic rival like the Colonials. Robert Morris boasts four first-team NEC members, including the top defender in the conference, Zachary Bryant, and the top goalie, Alex Heger.

"Coach (Andrew) McMinn has done a great job down there of building that program up," Miyashita said. "They've got some real tall, athletic defensemen that they can come out and press out with. They really cause havoc and try and disrupt the game for teams, and then they've got on their offensive end some real solid Canadian lacrosse players that know how to move that ball quickly and can really shoot it."

The Golden Griffins are led by Connor Kearnan, the MAAC's Offensive Player of the Year. He's the focal point of the team's offensive big five, which also includes Steven Coss, Mathieu Boissonneault, Carter Stefaniak and Ryan McKee. All five players have surpassed the 40-point mark this season, with Kearnan's 80 points pacing the group.

Canisius is 0-2 in NCAA Tournament games, falling to the eventual national champion both times, while Robert Morris is making its first postseason appearance. The chance to play the top midfielder in the country, Connor Kelly, and the loaded Terrapins looms in the back of both teams' minds.

"That would be unbelievable to go play in College Park," McKee said. "Growing up, watching those teams play on TV, this would be an incredible opportunity."

This article is written by Jack Goods from The Buffalo News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.