PHILADELPHIA — There's not much separating the Denver and Notre Dame men's lacrosse teams. The Pioneers and Fighting Irish, rising powers from the West and Midwest, respectively, are evenly matched in every area of the field.
On Saturday, on the sport's biggest stage, the schools needed overtime to decide which would get a shot at its first national championship.
Wesley Berg's goal 1:57 into the extra session of their NCAA Division I tournament semifinal was the difference as No. 4 seed Denver knocked off top-seeded Notre Dame, 11-10, before an announced 29,123 at Lincoln Financial Field. It was the third goal of the game for Berg, whose heroics lifted the Pioneers into the national championship game for the first time in program history.
Berg was open on the right wing, about 10 yards from goal, when he took a pass from Tyler Pace and whistled a sidearm shot past the ear of Notre Dame goalie Shane Doss. Berg threw his stick into the air and raised both arms in triumph as jubilant teammates mobbed him.
"I was just thankful the game was finally over. When you're up that much, you're watching the clock and you're counting down the seconds," Berg said. "Once we went to overtime, we just wanted to get the game finished as fast as possible. It was a huge relief, to be honest."
Berg was referring to Denver's blown four-goal lead. With 4:23 remaining, Berg grabbed a ground ball on the crease and scored off a spectacular behind-the-back shot to make it 10-6.
But midfielder Sergio Perkovic refused to let the Irish go down without a fight. Perkovic singlehandedly kept his team in the game by scoring all five of his goals in the fourth quarter, including three in a span of 1:38 to cut Denver's lead to 10-9 with 2:03 left.
Perkovic spun and fired a left-handed bounce shot into the net to make it 10-7 and blasted an overhand crank shot from the right side to cut the deficit to two. The powerfully built 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore then lowered his shoulder and bulled right past short-stick defensive midfielder Christian Thomas to make it a one-goal game.
Midfielder Nick Ossello scored the equalizer for Notre Dame, dodging past Thomas, then stopping and unleashing a long bounce shot when there was no slide. Notre Dame regained possession with 43 seconds left and took a timeout with 22.8 seconds to go. Ossello's tying goal came with just nine seconds left on the clock.
“I didn't think we played particularly well at certain points of the game, but we did what we needed to do to be in a one-play game at the end,” said Irish coach Kevin Corrigan, a Baltimore native. “We just didn't make that play.”
Denver coach Bill Tierney was impressed with the way his players regrouped after the lead evaporated down the stretch.
“When you give up four goals in four minutes after giving up just six in 56 minutes, you are kind of bewildered,” he said. “I think the guys let the emotion of the moment get to them a little bit, and Perkovic is an animal.”
Notre Dame came up with possession after a wild scramble off the opening faceoff of overtime. Attackman Matt Kavanagh, a first-team All-American, attacked the cage but was stripped by Denver defenseman Carson Cannon. Afterward, Corrigan was asked whether he would have preferred Kavanagh pull the ball out and run a settled offense.
“Matt Kavanagh has won a bunch of games for us in exactly that kind of situation,” Corrigan said. “With hindsight, would you want a timeout? Of course, because the ball got taken away. Matt Kavanagh is about 12-1 in that situation, so I'll take Kav.”
Denver cleared the ball, and Tierney immediately called timeout. Offensive coordinator Matt Brown designed a play that had attackman Zach Miller taking the shot, but Tierney was not unhappy to see Berg do so instead.
“We knew if we got it into Wesley's hands, there was a good chance it would be a good shot,” Tierney said.
Pace had two goals and two assists for Denver (16-2), which will meet Maryland in the final. Miller added two goals and an assist, while fellow attackman Jack Bobzien had a goal and an assist for the Pioneers, who had lost in three previous semifinal appearances.
"It's another step forward. We haven't been here yet, but the most important thing is to win the next one, and winning it all. That's what we're here for," said Berg, who has 53 goals this season.
Tierney built a dynasty at Princeton, which won five national championships during his 22-year tenure. He stunned the college lacrossse world six years ago by leaving for Denver.
“I've been around this block a few times, and I've had some amazing moments in my career that I've been given credit for because of what young men did,” said Tierney, in the final four for the fourth time in five years. “So from the day I took this job, I have tried to keep it not about me but about the players and about the university. We feel really good about being able to play on Monday. We have something special going.”
Ossello scored two goals, while midfielder Will Corrigan had a goal and two assists for Notre Dame, which was trying to reach the championship game for the second straight season and third time since 2010. Doss finished with 11 saves for the Fighting Irish, who earned the No. 1 seed for the first time in program history.
Denver freshman Trevor Baptiste was a first-team All-American faceoff specialist and showed why Saturday, winning 15 of 24 draws and allowing the Pioneers to dominate possession.
"We didn't play great offensively, and I don't know quite what to attribute that to. We were a little bit impatient, the goalie made some good saves, and we turned the ball over uncharacteristically," Kevin Corrigan said. "It's hard to get into a rhythm when you don't have the ball for long stretches."