Kareem Johnson is a little bit of a secret weapon for St. Anne’s-Belfield boys lacrosse. He’s a lock down close defender capable of neutralizing the opposing squad’s best player, and he earned All-Prep League honors for that this season.
But Johnson is capable of quite a bit more than that admittedly difficult, crucial role.
“Kareem has been a warrior for us all year, he’s so athletic,” said STAB coach Bo Perriello. “He’s incredible on the defensive end, but he can stretch it between the lines too.”
On Tuesday, those skills made an appearance at the perfect time, when Johnson grabbed a ground ball and raced down field before finding and feeding Jack Schultz for what became the game-winning goal in an 11-10 victory over Collegiate in the VISAA Division I quarterfinals.
“It’d been tough trying to get ground balls,” Johnson said. “Once I got a ground ball, in open field I can really see and when I saw Jack coming across, I just had to make a perfect throw to get a goal because that was all we needed.”
Johnson’s play was one of a series of clutch performances that helped lift the Saints into the state final four, including Schultz posting a four-goal, two-assist performance that proved again how dangerous the Saints’ offense can be when it’s clicking. No matter who the opposition tries to clamp down on, STAB can find a way to burn you, as Collegiate found out last Thursday when Joe Robertson scored seven goals in the regular season finale clash between the two squads. Tuesday it was Schultz.
“Jack is a fantastic player and he sees the field incredible well,” Perriello said. “We really needed him today to step up and he did. Incredible performance, a lot of composure.”
STAB doesn’t have to force the issue and feed one player, because everyone on offense is capable of getting the job done. Which means that on the other end, Collegiate needed to be precise and take advantage of every opportunity, every window. For a long stretch in the middle of the game, they managed to do just that. The Cougars put together a sizable run in the first half, scoring five-straight goals after the Saints built a 2-0 lead out of the gate, and Collegiate led 9-7 at the end of three quarters. During that stretch, STAB keeper Patrick Blake was struggling to come up with stops.
“I walked off the field after I got four or five dropped on me and (assistant coach) Rodney (Rullman) said come back together, you’re going to have to come up with a couple of crucial saves here at the end to keep us in the game,” Blake said. “I knew I had to step up and my moment came.”
Blake did just that, shaking off those struggles to come up with a series of critical stops as STAB surged down the stretch. Collegiate scored just a single goal in the fourth quarter. Blake made a huge save with under two seconds to play as the Cougars desperately tried to find the equalizer. Collegiate got one last chance with 1.6 seconds to play and a man-up restart after a late STAB penalty, and while the shot appeared to come after the final buzzer, Blake again made a stop, leaving no doubt that STAB had prevailed.
“For a guy that hasn’t been in the goal since eighth grade to step in to this level and give us what he’s given us is just phenomenal,” Perriello said.
Joe Robertson scored twice and also dished out two assists for the Saints. Phillip Robertson and Connor Shellenberger each had two goals for the Saints with Shellenberger also notching an assist. Josh Reiss had a crucial fourth quarter goal for STAB as well, scoring with 10:56 left to play to pull the Saints within one.
Michael DiGiacomo led STAB with six ground balls while Johnson had five and Javon Johnson came up with four. Blake finished with seven saves on the night. Collegiate’s strong stretch in the second and third quarters coincided with a dominant run on faceoffs. The Cougars held a 12 to 5 advantage there which helped keep them up or within striking distance the entire game.
Collegiate’s Mait Innes and Win Martin led the Cougars with a hat trick and an assist each. Patrick Kirchmier had two goals for Collegiate. Jed Londrey was strong on faceoffs and finished with 11 groundballs for the Cougars.
STAB advances to the state semifinals where they’ll face Norfolk Academy, who upset St. Christopher’s Friday night. STAB won the teams’ regular season meeting 14-11 in Norfolk in late April. They’ll square off at 7 p.m. Friday at Randolph Macon College.
It was clear that after STAB withstood that final threat from Collegiate at the buzzer, there was a sense of relief and joy coursing through the Saints.
“When we forced that pass into the middle, and the horn went off, it was a great feeling to know that we’re moving on,” Blake said.