ERIE, Pa. -- The Dowling men's lacrosse team had two bad days in the regular season.
The Golden Lions earned a chance to make amends by securing one of four spots in the NCAA Division II playoffs. They moved a step closer to reaching their goal Saturday with a dramatic 7-6 overtime win in the semifinals against previously unbeaten Mercyhurst at Tullio Field.
"It feels great to have a second chance to avenge those bad days," coach Tim Boyle said, referring first to a 7-6 East Coast Conference loss at home to the No. 1 Lakers on March 24. Junior midfielder Kyle Sopko's goal with 1 minute, 33 seconds left in overtime capped the Golden Lions' rally from a two-goal, fourth-quarter deficit against Mercyhurst (13-1) and earned their first trip to the title game since 2006.
Dowling (12-2) will face Limestone (S.C.) May 27 at 1 p.m. at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Limestone (17-1), which edged then-unbeaten Le Moyne, 10-8, in Saturday's other semifinal, beat Dowling, 15-7, in their regular-season finale May 6.
"We'll be up for the challenge," said junior attackman Billy Richardson, who scored twice late Saturday, including the tying goal with 5:42 left in regulation. Until that point, the Lakers' defense stymied Richardson and the potent Golden Lions' offense.
Mercyhurst, which entered the game with the nation's No. 2 scoring defense (5.15 goals per game), constantly harried Dowling's quick, agile midfielders. That kept them from creating scoring chances for Richardson and fellow attackmen Vito DeMola and Michael Brennan, who led the nation's fifth-best offense (12.31 goals per game). But the Golden Lions capitalized on defensive breakdowns to force overtime.
Richardson, Dowling's second-leading scorer, slipped from behind the net to score with 8:17 left in the fourth to spark the comeback. He got behind the defense again for the tying goal.
"When we made mistakes, they took advantage," Mercyhurst coach Chris Ryan said.
With the Lakers focused on Dowling's top offensive weapons, Sopko found a way through the middle of the Lakers' defense late in overtime.
He received a pass from senior midfielder Brendan Hayes and fired a shot. Lakers goaltender Michael Grace deflected it, but the ball found the back of the net. "It's a dream come true," said Sopko, who scored twice after totaling six goals and 11 points in the first 13 games.
"When Sopko scored that goal," Richardson said, "that was a great feeling."
Boyle used the same defensive strategy to silence Mercyhurst's normally potent offense. Dowling's defense, spearheaded by senior Matthew Lauria, held Mercyhurst's high-scoring attackmen Brady Heseltine, Kyle Kallay and Brian Scheetz to a combined one goal and two points.
Kallay scored the Lakers' final goal with 11:26 left in the fourth. Mercyhurst didn't score again.