Jax Francisco drew from his training to become a goalie just when Gerstell needed it the most.
The Falcons freshman allowed four goals from Saints Peter & Paul in the first quarter of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association’s B Conference championship game, and after 12 minutes of play Gerstell’s second consecutive apearance in the final wasn’t going well. That’s when Francisco said he took a few moments to clear his mind.
“I just thought through my short-term memory,” Francisco said. “Just said that I want to win this game for my school. So I just did everything I could to forget about the first quarter.”
Three quarters later, that first frame was long forgotten.
Francisco made some adjustments, and got help from his defense, to lift Gerstell past Saints Peter & Paul 9-5 at Towson University to capture the school’s first MIAA title.
Francisco’s stature might not compare with that of some of his teammates, but he more than made up for it between the pipes. Francisco made 10 saves and surrendered one goal over the final three quarters.
The Falcons (11-8) outscored the Sabres 9-1 after their slow start, including a run of eight goals in a row over the second and third quarters that swung momentum their way.
Seniors Seth Higgins and Michael Ippolito joined sophomore CJ Kovalsky with two goals apiece, and Higgins handed out four assists. But the offensive numbers may not have mattered if not for Gerstell’s defensive shift after the first quarter.
“I was a little nervous, but we’ve been in that situation a lot this year,” said Gerstell coach Sean Todd. “We adjusted to zone … we’ve been kind of holding back, holding that zone for most of the year until we needed it. I was trying to hold it back as long as possible. I knew we had to go to it as soon as we did. It made a dramatic change in the whole entire game.”
Todd credited seniors Noah Betz, Brian Warehime, and Brad Witt, along with Francisco, for leading the charge on defense and making things tough on the Sabres (10-8). SPP senior attackman Nate Shafer had two of his three goals in the first quarter, and despite Gerstell controlling the possessions Saints Peter & Paul was having its way.
Shafer scored with six seconds remaining in the opening frame — the Sabres then went scoreless for nearly 26 minutes. And Gerstell capitalized.
“We took the energy, knowing they don’t have a lot of depth, and we used our veteran players,” said Higgins, referring to the Sabres’ small roster. “Especially from our defense.”
And what about the Falcons’ freshman goalie?
“He finally got his chance to show what he’s got today,” Higgins said.
Zach Urban’s goal with 4 minutes to play before halftime tied the score at 4-4, and the teams were even at the break. But Gerstell seemed to be taking over, and when Higgins netted a goal at the 8:52 mark of the third quarter the Falcons never trailed again.
Kovalsky added two goals over the next three minutes, and Ippolito finished off a pass from Higgins by scoring at close range with 36 seconds to go in the third quarter.
Shafer potted his third goal early in the fourth, cutting the Falcons’ lead to 8-5. The game stayed that way, however, and Francisco stopped a pair of shots in front of the goal in the final minutes that put a charge into the Falcons’ fans and his teammates on the sideline.
“He played unbelieveably for a freshman in this kind of environment,” Todd said. “It feels like he’s been here a hundred times before … and that’s what you need from a goalie.”
By the time Higgins scored his second goal, with 24 seconds remaining, Gerstell’s reserves were making their plans to charge the field and celebrate with Francisco. They darted toward their goalie as time expired, and Higgins made sure to raise Francisco up onto his right shoulder while extending the index finger on his left hand.
The scene was quite different a year ago, when Gerstell led John Carroll by two goals in the fourth quarter only to lose the B Conference final 16-11 and allow its opponent a decisive scoring run. Now, Higgins and his teammates had their own run to boast.
A run that led them to their program’s first championship.
“Last year we definitely had a disadvantage going in as underdogs,” Higgins said. “This year it was something to put on our shoulder. … It didn’t really show in the first quarter, but late in the game when it matters we came together as a team.”