Taft vs. St. John’s College, Championship game

By Christopher Lawlor

WASHINGTON — Jeffery Ricciardelli had just deposited his fifth goal of the night and the senior attackman from The Taft School (Watertown, Conn.) leapt skyward. It was time to celebrate.

His younger brother, Thomas Ricciardelli, the fearless Taft junior goalie raised his stick too.

Even then, the Ricciardelli brothers could not deny the obvious: The Taft Rhinos were GEICO High School Lacrosse Nationals champions.

With Jeffery sinking five goals with an assist for six points and Thomas making 22 saves (38 total over two days), Taft, No. 11 in the Inside Lacrosse Top 25 High School Power Rankings, defeated St. John’s College (Washington, D.C.), 10-6, in the championship game of the fourth annual GEICO Lacrosse Nationals at Catholic University’s Carlini Field.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” Taft fourth-year head coach Nic Bell said. “They hung in there today and locked arms even when things were getting tough, and I couldn’t be more pleased with their effort today.”

When the post-tournament hardware was handed out, the Ricciardelli brothers, both headed to Notre Dame a year apart, were declared Co-GEICO Nationals Most Valuable Players. Very few would argue the selections.

In two games at GEICO Nationals, Thomas stopped 16 shots in the semifinals against Culver (Ind.) Military Academy and totaled 38. Jeffery, a slippery off-ball attack, clicked for 11 points, including five goals and an assist in the May 31 final.

Even Bell knows the worth of the Ricciardelli brothers from New Canaan, Conn.

“It’s not much coaching. We just roll the balls out and let them play. They are incredible kids and in many ways the face of our program. They truly do things the right way. They’ve played excellent for us down the stretch.

Taft, which finished 9-2 overall, had lost two of three matches leading up to the GEICO Nationals. The Rhinos compete in the uber competitive New England Prep West Division I and fell to powerhouse programs Brunswick (Conn.) School and Deerfield (Mass.) Academy. However, Bell said his “resilient” senior-laden team came prepared to win it.

“We didn’t have a great season in some ways; we lost a couple of tough ones that we wish we could have back. They buckled down worked harder, believed in each other, never questioned us as coaches and fought ‘til the end … and I think you saw that today,” the coach said, smiling.

Taft is the third winner of the GEICO Lacrosse Nationals, joining The Hill School (Ontario, Canada) in 2017 and 2018; and Bullis School (Potomac, Md.) in 2019. Due to the pandemic, the 2020 event was canceled.

In the fourth quarter, the Rhinos were pouncing on loose balls and remained in control. Senior midfielder Ryan Levy, a North Carolina signee, made it 9-4, nailing a shot on the run early in the period and then assisted on Jeffery Ricciardelli’s fifth marker of the night with 5:44 left.

Levy has lacrosse bloodlines. His mother, Jenny Levy, is the head women’s lacrosse coach at North Carolina and led her team to the Final Four this season. His father, Dan Levy, played on the Tar Heels’ 1991 National Championship men’s lacrosse squad.

Junior middie Luke Rhoa, a Syracuse recruit, pulled back two goals in a 46-second span, starting at 3:43, but it was too little too late.

Junior Gavin Kelly added two goals and an assist for the Cadets and sophomore goalie Caleb Fyock made 13 saves.

Middie Dash Sachs tallied a goal but more importantly captured 15-of-18 draws from X, keying the victory.

Taft outshot the Cadets, 34-24, including 22 on goal. SJC created 17 turnovers and coughed it up only nine times, but the faceoff loomed large.

And that narrative held up throughout and most pronounced after halftime.

The Rhinos continued the dominance from the X faceoff, winning 12-of-13 draws complements of Sachs’ quick hands. That meant more time of possession and an 8-4 lead after three frames.

Long-pole Nick Kenerson, Jeffery Ricciardelli and Penn-bound junior Isaac Korus tallied for the Rhinos in the third.

After more than 21 minutes of goalless lacrosse, the Cadets scored off the stick of Robert Morris-commit Kelly, who rubbed off a pick left-to-right before uncorking an unstoppable 15-yard shot. The Cadets on 11 straight shots going back to the first quarter. He added a second goal that just beat the third-quarter horn and the Cadets trailed by four goals.

The second quarter belonged to the Rhinos, who after surrendering the first two goals peeled off the next five for a 5-2 edge at the break.

The Rhinos were 9-of-9 from the faceoff X and outshot the Cadets, 24-13. Fyock had a busy half needing to make 10 saves in the mostly defensive game.

Jeffery Ricciardelli picked up from where he left off in the semifinals with three goals in the opening 24 minutes, including two in the second. He netted his third with 1:19 left in the half on a flicking high elevating shot into the corner. Off the ensuing faceoff, the Brown-recruit Sachs gathered the loose ball, raced in and ripped a rocket into the cage for Taft’s fifth marker. The back-to-back goals took six seconds and were damaging.

The Cadets came out sluggish but found their rhythm after seven minutes and carried a 2-1 lead into the second. Each team took eight shots on goal, with Thomas Ricciardelli making six saves for the Rhinos.

The first eight minutes of the first stanza saw the goalies shine until 4:52 when Alex Thal Larsen fired in a dipping overhand shot that flummoxed Thomas Ricciardelli. Freshman attack Alex Duenkel then facilitated the second goal just over a minute later. Haley netted when he gathered the feed at the doorstep and dropped in a gorgeous behind-the-back, wrap-around shot to make it 2-0.

Taft broke through with under a minute. Jeffery Ricciardelli was at X when he fed Levy on the left side and a hard, left-handed 10-yard shot beat Fyock high.

Fyock was brilliant when from the first faceoff, rejecting two rippers from the outside and then intercepting a pass intended for a cutter that might have snapped the scoreless draw. Ricciardelli had his moments too, but SJC tallied two within 74 seconds.

No. 9 SJC (9-1) had their win streak halted at 12 games dating back to an abbreviated 2020 season. The Cadets, coached by Wes Speaks, a former defenseman at Towson University, will push for another GEICO Nationals invitation in 2022. The team returns a junior class with nine Division I commitments with more expected over the summer.

The Cadets were hampered in the GEICO Nationals after losing junior middie and faceoff specialist Blake Boyd to a knee injury earlier in May. Boyd, an Air Force Academy recruit, won a high percentage of his faceoffs and would have made a difference in the final.

And Division I-bound players was the theme at GEICO Nationals as 62 players from the four participating schools had signed or verballed. That includes 20 from Taft. — Story written by Christopher Lawlor