WESTPORT — Graham Braden is the New Canaan boys lacrosse team’s version of a handyman, versatile enough to fulfill a variety of roles.
That is until the clock winds down.
Then Braden becomes the Rams’ fixer.
“We ask him to do a lot on faceoff wings, he plays a lot of defense for us, he’s incredible between the lines, but at the end of any quarter, at the end of situation like overtime, he’s playing offense,” New Canaan coach Chip Buzzeo said.
Such was the case tonight against Staples. Ryan O’Connell controlled the rebound of a shot by Jackson Appelt and got the ball back out to Braden, whose shot with four seconds left in the second overtime gave New Canaan a 15-14 win to put an end to an exhilarating contest.
It marked the last step in a long comeback for the Rams (6-0, 5-3 FCIAC), who were pressed to remain unbeaten in conference play. In a reversal from the flow they are accustomed to, the Rams allowed eight straight goals to fall behind early in the third quarter, 10-5.
Three goals by New Canaan in a span of 57 seconds stabilized the team and set the stage for a thrilling finish.
“It’s all one step at a time,” said Ryan O’Connell, who finished with 4 goals and an assist for New Canaan. “We can’t lose hope in each other at all. All these guys have been playing together a long time. We said the next goal is ours. Then we kept chipping away. That’s exactly what happened.”
Braden has developed a flair for the dramatic: his goal with 11 seconds remaining in the season opener gave the Rams a 9-8 win over Wilton.
Comparing Braden to some of the team’s recent great players, Buzzeo said, “In big moments they don’t tense up.”
Rich Magnus scored 3 goals and Jack Hoelzer added a pair for New Canaan, which has to come back Saturday to face Darien in its most anticipated game of the regular season.
New Canaan appeared to be building a comfortable situation when Owen Shin scored for a 5-2 lead with 7:24 left in the first half.
Staples (6-3, 3-2) then took over for the next 12 minutes, ignited by goals from Matt Bidgood and Ziggy Hallgarten 20 seconds apart that cut the deficit to a goal. By halftime the Wreckers had a 7-5 lead and it continued to swell.
It was a stunning momentum swing, but the Rams were in a similar position earlier in the month against Cold Spring Harbor (NY), falling behind, 9-2, before rallying in what would eventually become a 12-9 loss.
“I think we learned a lot more from that game than from some other games,” O’Connell said. “That helped us today. It’s the experience.”
Those last three words were echoed by Staples coach Paul McNulty, who was buoyed by his team’s performance.
“We played very hard, they played very hard and they got the last goal,” McNulty said. “They took advantage of a good play and made a good shot to win the game. We asked them to play the best game of the year and they did. We did play our best but they had enough to take it at the end.”
Staples had an 11-8 lead in the final quarter but the Rams rallied and seemed to regain control when O’Connell gave them a 14-12 advantage with 4:29 left.
Bidgood scored with 2:41 remaining to make it a one-goal game and Evan Zinn tied it on a hard shot with 1:29 left.
Bidgood was a outstanding, finishing with 6 goals and 1 assist. Tanner Wood and Max Lonergan each scored twice, while Zinn finished with 3 assists.
“We knew it was going to be a close game but we didn’t think it was going to be a 15-14 game,” Buzzeo said. “We never had high scoring games with Staples before. I have to credit their staff. They threw so much what we like to call junk at us in terms of different types of schemes and shutoffs and zones. It was an incredible game for both teams. Hats off to every kid who played in this game today. That’s how the game should be played.”
O’Connell was equal parts relief and excitement after the team’s postgame huddle.
“Staples came out and played a phenomenal game,” O’Connell said. “You can’t sleep on anybody in the FCIAC.”