SPARKS, Md. — Jack Rowlett was not afraid of the moment.
With the U.S. team clinging to a one-goal lead with fewer than 30 seconds to play, the defenseman who’s earned a reputation as a takeaway artist executed a perfectly timed wraparound check to dislodge the ball from Virginia freshman attackman Tucker Mullen. The caused turnover, collected by Jarrod Neumann, sealed an 8-7 victory for the U.S. and helped the team close out Fall Classic undefeated.
“With 30 seconds left, they don’t want to turn the ball over, so you can be a little more aggressive with any check you want to throw,” said Rowlett, a Virginia native who’s playing for the U.S. for the first time since 2016 when he won gold with the U19 team.
The bold play ended a riveting comeback from the two-time defending NCAA champion Cavaliers. But more than an exciting contest, the tight second half played under clearing skies offered a crucial test for the U.S. and insight for both coaching staffs evaluating their teams.
“It's priceless,” Virginia coach Lars Tiffany said. “It's truly priceless having an opportunity to challenge yourself against the best from Canada and the best from our nation.”
“We couldn’t pay any amount of money for a game like that,” U.S. assistant coach Seth Tierney said. “That is gold to us. Sometimes you only get a chance to see the real emotions, the real people, the real culture when you’re tested.”
They were, though not during the first quarter. Early on it looked as if the game was headed in the same direction as the U.S.’s 11-5 victory over Canada the previous night. Mac O’Keefe scored the first two goals of the game with his now signature underhand outside shot.
The sequence of the second goal looked all too familiar when Grant Ament dished a cross field skip pass to O’Keefe. One of the most prolific duos in NCAA history, Ament and O’Keefe helped propel Penn State to its first final four in program history. They started on the U.S. attack alongside Jules Heningburg. After playing on opposite attack lines last night, it was the former Nittany Lions’ first time playing together in 875 days.
They picked up right where they left off.
“Grant Ament has eyes for O’Keefe,” Tierney said. “There’s no getting around it. They have natural chemistry.”
“If I didn't ever have to guard Grant, that'd be a miracle,” Rowlett said. “I hate guarding Grant. He brings so much and you have to be so mentally engaged the whole time. ... With Mac, I saw it all year [as teammates for the PLL champion Chaos]. I knew it was coming. As soon as he catches it, he knows he's letting it go ahead of time. He’s gonna score 90 percent of those.”
In many ways, it was fitting that the reunion took place with the U.S. team. Ament, who led all scorers with three goals and one assist, first met O’Keefe in 2015 during the U.S. U19 tryout process and roomed together on a training weekend trip to Ohio State.
Now, they’re putting up highlight-reel goals together with the senior team.
“It’s kind of coming all full circle right now,” said O’Keefe, who set the NCAA career goals record this spring and played midfield for the Chaos. “Just to see the career he’s had [in the pros] and to be back with him now, it’s great. Hopefully we can play together in the future.”
The connection wasn’t the only bond surfacing on the turf at Tierney Field tonight.
“It feels like practice,” Virginia short-stick defensive midfielder Grayson Sallade told U.S. long pole Jared Conners on the wing during an early faceoff.
It was only five months ago that they were embracing along with their teammates after hoisting a national championship trophy in a repeat like no other. Conners, the first long pole to earn USILA Midfielder of the Year honors since Joel White in 2011, was in Tierney’s estimation the best player on the field when he scored a goal and wreaked havoc between the lines against the U.S. back in 2019 at the Fall Classic.
“It was a tough spot for me because I wanted us to do well, but I also wanted to see them have a great game,” Conners said.
After being outshot 12-1 in the first quarter, the Cavaliers reversed the stat line in second, with the help of five penalties from the U.S. They trailed 5-2 at halftime.
O’Keefe switched the natural order of things by feeding Ament cross crease to open the scoring in the second half. The U.S. took a five-goal lead again after Joe Nardella (4-for-6) scored after a faceoff win.
The Cavaliers comeback was fueled by less-heralded names than those starring on Memorial Day this year. Xander Dickson, who had arguably the goal of the weekend in Virginia’s loss to Canada earlier Saturday, scored back-to-back goals in the third quarter. Will Cory did the same between bridging the third and fourth quarters. His backhand wraparound shot made the Cavaliers bench explode. It felt more like spring then fall.
“The way those men competed,” Tiffany said before pausing for several seconds, “I’ll admit, I’m a bit awestruck with how Mencke and [Jack] Simmons and Will Cory and several others stepped up.”
“They came back with a vengeance, but I’m proud of the way we stuck together and just to get the win,” Tierney said. “One goal. 10 goals. A W is a W.”