c/o Steve McLaughlin

c/o Steve McLaughlin

Revenge is a dish best served cradling the NESCAC title. After missing the NESCAC Tournament last season for the first time in 21 years, the Wesleyan men’s lacrosse team mounted a comeback campaign for the ages, culminating in winning their third NESCAC Championship in program history and thier first since 2017.

Following a stellar regular season in which the Cardinals went 8–2 in conference play and 12–3 overall, they earned the no. 2 seed in the NESCAC Tournament and faced their first opportunity for redemption on April 27, as they matched up against no. 7 seeded Trinity.

The Cardinals lost their previous two games to the Bantams by a combined two goals. The Bantams handed the Cardinals their most recent loss in a 9–10 overtime defeat on April 10, and that memory was fresh in the Cards’ minds as they headed into the quarterfinal matchup.

“Right when we lost to them, I just had a feeling we were gonna see them again,” captain and midfielder DJ Dixon ’24 said. “And [this time] we [were] at our place, and the stars aligned perfectly, and [we were] very, very excited.”

The Red and Black found themselves down 8–9 at halftime, but the second half was a historical performance. Dixon scored on the first possession on an assist from midfielder James Bailey ’26 to tie the game at nine. The Cardinals scored six times in the third period, with midfielder CK Giancola ’24 accounting for four of those goals, while the Cardinals’ defense held the Bantams scoreless. Trinity scored the first goal of the fourth period, but the Cardinals tacked on three more to capture a dominant 18–10 victory.

All 18 of the Cardinals’ second-half points (10 goals, 8 assists) came from Dixon, Bailey, Giancola, captain and attacker Justin Hazard ’23 MA ’24, and attacker Jack Raba ’23 MA ’24. Giancola had a historic day, with an astonishing eight goals, matching a team and NESCAC Tournament single-game scoring record. This performance earned him NESCAC Player of the Week, the second time he received the title this year.

But the victory over Trinity was not the only win for the Cardinals that day. Up in Medford, Mass., no. 8 seed Hamilton defeated five-time defending NESCAC Champion and no. 1 seed Tufts in a stunning 14–13 OT upset victory. With the unexpected defeat of the Jumbos, Wesleyan earned the right to host the NESCAC Semifinal and Final on Jackson Field. With the path to the championship now running through Middletown, the Dirty Birds were ready to capitalize on their home-field advantage and show the Continentals whose house it was.

“We knew they were gonna have a lot of juice,” Dixon said. “They were playing with nothing to lose as an eight seed, so that’s a little dangerous. So you gotta be worried about that, but at the end of the day, it’s about us playing our game.”

Though Hamilton was first to get on the board, the Cards responded swiftly with a five-goal run to establish a firm 6–2 lead going into the break. The Continentals managed to narrow the Cardinals’ lead at the top of the third period to 6–3, but back-to-back Giancola goals, both assisted by Hazard, maintained the Red and Black’s momentum. They entered the fourth quarter up 9–4. The teams traded goals throughout the fourth, but the Continentals were unable to overcome the deficit. The Cardinals cruised to a definitive 12–6 victory, earning their spot in the NESCAC Championship game.

Holding a Continentals team fresh off a 14-goal performance to six goals, the Cardinals’ defensive unit marked the fewest goals they had allowed in a game all year.

“We were just really disciplined,” captain and defender Charlie Silver ’25 said. “Just making sure we were aware of what’s going on and staying focused. If all six guys do our jobs out there, I think we’re an unbelievable defense, and I think we really showed that today, which is fantastic.”

22 hours later, the Cardinals returned to Jackson Field to take on Middlebury for the NESCAC Championship. There were roughly 400 people in attendance, with families and Wesleyan alums traveling from all over in hopes of seeing the Cardinals complete their revenge tour and capture their third-ever NESCAC Championship.

It started similarly to the previous game, with the Panthers getting on the board first, scoring three minutes in. Neither team scored for the next seven minutes, until Burns ripped one into the back of the net for his 53rd goal of the season. A couple of possessions later, attacker Alex Moynihan ’24 scored from deep to give the Cardinals the lead. Both teams scored once more before the end of the period, with the Cardinals taking a 3–2 lead. Burns got the scoring started in the second quarter on an assist from Jack Raba, but the Panthers fought back, scoring three straight goals in 90 seconds to take a 4–5 lead.

c/o Steve McLaughlin

c/o Steve McLaughlin

Burns discussed the Cardinals’ preparation and how they were able to weather the Panthers’ run.

“We knew coming into the game that there would be runs from both sides, and we were prepared for their 3-goal flurry,” Burns said. “We were able to fight back, thanks to some big stops on defense and strong plays from our [face off get offs (FOGOs)]. Because of that, we could go on some runs of our own.”

And fight back they did. The Red and Black responded with two goals in the last two minutes of the first half, highlighted by Dixon running from midfield and firing a shot into the top right corner with nine seconds left. The Cardinals took a 6–5 lead heading into the break, with 30 minutes between them and the NESCAC title, and with the momentum now firmly on their side.

The Cardinals’ defense, which held the Panthers scoreless in the second half of the second period, continued their success by not conceding a single goal in the third quarter. Goalie Conor Selfridge ’26 starred with a career-high 17 saves, while midfielder Joe Hurton ’27 forced four turnovers and collected four ground balls to lead the way defensively. A tense moment came midway through the third period, when two Cardinals were penalized, giving Middlebury a 6-on-4 advantage. The Cardinals thwarted all three of Middlebury’s attempts, and Sulfridge received a roaring applause after covering up the third shot attempt.

Silver highlighted the defense’s ability to work cohesively even under such intense pressure.

“We’ve just been such a close-knit group,” Silver said. “And with defense, you gotta play together [with] all six guys on the field operating at 100%. We just believe in and love each other, and that has really helped us do well. Coming into this game, [we wanted to] show that we are a strength to this team, and we can stifle any offense out there.”

The Red and Black offense built on the defens’s success, with Giancola scoring twice in the third period to open up a three-goal lead. That was not all for the Cardinals’ midfielder, who netted his fourth goal of the game and 54th of the season a minute into the fourth period. Giancola’s fourth goal came on an assist from Hazard, who captured his 137th career point (17th in program history) with this assist. The Panthers responded with their first goal in over 25 minutes to cut the lead to 6–9.

After a stout defensive stand, Head Coach John Raba called his second-to-last timeout and gave the team key advice that ultimately led to their victory.

“Coach told us to fall back on what got us to this part of the season, and to focus on the next play,” Burns said. “We knew we had to make some big stops and be patient on offense, and that’s what eventually won us the game.”

The Cardinals were methodical on offense, using up every second of the shot clock. Defensively, they didn’t let the Panthers get quality looks, and, despite a last-minute goal by Middlebury, they held on for a 9–7 victory. Dixon evaded the defense as the final seconds ticked off, chucking the ball into the air as he and the team ran to embrace Sulfridge.

With that, the Cardinals secured their third NESCAC title in team history. The significance of the victory, especially after last year’s underwhelming season, was not lost on the team.

“We all just worked extra hard in the offseason,” Giancola said. “We came into this year with a good group of guys, [and] knowing we had a lot of key pieces coming back. And I think we all just kinda came together as a team for a common goal, and it ended up working out.”

On top of the conference title, several Cardinals earned individual accolades. Jack Raba, Dixon, and Giancola all earned First-NESCAC honors, while Burns was awarded Second Team. Jack Raba is only the seventh attacker in team history to be named First Team, and the first since 2021. Dixon and Giancola’s honors are the first time in program history that two midfielders earned First Team in the same season. Additionally, Coach Raba and his staff were named NESCAC Coaching Staff of the Year, his fourth Coach of the Year conference accolade in his 28 years at the helm of this program.

The Cardinals’ first NCAA tournament game will be in the second round on May 11, when they host 12–7 St. John Fisher University. Should they win, the Cardinals will advance to the third round, and host the winner of St. Lawrence University vs Plymouth State University. If the Cardinals win both of these games, it would set up a potential quarterfinal matchup against the Jumbos.

Silver spoke on what the NESCAC Championship meant to the team with the NCAA Tournament on the horizon.

“It’s such a great way to go into the [NCAA] Tournament, and just an awesome feeling,” Silver said. “[We’re gonna] just enjoy it and get back to work for [the] playoffs.”

Erin Byerly can be reached at ebyerly@wesleyan.edu

Sam Weitzman-Kurker can be reached at sweitzmankur@wesleyan.edu.