CRANSTON — Sunday was years in the making for the South Kingstown High School boys lacrosse team.
In 13 seasons of play, the program had never won a championship. The seniors lived through a 2-10 campaign as freshmen. The juniors had been pegged for stardom since eighth grade, when they won the Rhode Island Youth Lacrosse championship with the South County Sharks. And all the Rebels had to pick up the pieces last year when a 12-1 season came to an unceremonious end in the semifinals.
Out of all that history, the Rebels wrote a new chapter with a 12-10 victory over Portsmouth in the Division II championship game at Cranston Stadium, claiming the program’s first title.
“The past few years, we’ve kind of had rough years. Last year, we were supposed to go to the championship and we came up short, had some difficulties,” junior Max Willette said. “This year, at the very beginning of the season, I kind of knew this was a special team. It feels amazing finally getting the ‘ship.”
The Rebels were the No. 2 seed off a 13-1 regular season. Their only loss came in April to Portsmouth, the unbeaten No. 1 seed. The two teams were clearly the class of the division.
“We’ve been gearing up for this game since April. After that game, we circled it on our calendar and said we’d like to get one more shot at them,” head coach Tom Cauchon said. “You could see it kind of developing over the year.”
After the 19-11 loss to the Patriots, the Rebels won 11 in a row. They made it 12 in the rematch, building a lead and holding on down the stretch. Goalie Curtis Rasmussen racked up 17 saves, Willette delivered the clinching goal in the final minute and the Rebels avoided at least some of the penalty issues that cost them in the first meeting.
“The first time, we took some penalties at the end and lost our cool,” Cauchon said. “Today we stayed on it, and Rasmussen was spectacular. And we scored some big goals to put it away when we had a chance.”
Willette totaled five goals and two assists to lead the attack. Evan Adams and Connor Horiagon scored two goals each, with Matt Boynton, Justin Brown and Jack McCarty tallying one each. Mike Boynton handed out three assists, while McCarty, Brown and Andy Sprague all had one.
The Rebels never trailed and busted the game open in the second quarter, turning a 4-2 lead into an 8-3 cushion by halftime. Portsmouth steadily worked its way back in the second half, ultimately moving within a goal at 11-10 with 2:44 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Whistled for seven penalties in the second half, the Rebels played the final stretch without a flag, allowing their defense to shine. After Portsmouth won the next draw following the goal that made it 11-10, Rasmussen made a series of stops to keep the Patriots from netting the equalizer.
“The last minute saves were definitely the most important,” Rasmussen said. “It was fun the whole game, moving, doing some acrobat stuff. I tried to keep my head, ignore the crowd. I zoned out and focused on the ball, watched it into my stick every time.”
Portsmouth still had hope until McCarty knocked the ball away from Cade McHugh with 50 seconds left, then broke the ball out of the defensive half. That led to a transition chance, and Mike Boynton found Willette for the game-clinching goal with 32 seconds remaining.
“I knew if I could knock it down, I could win the game for my team,” McCarty said. “He beat me the one before that, but I knew I could get him the second time.”
“They made us sweat it out, but that maybe makes it even a little bit sweeter,” Cauchon said. “My assistant coach Mike Boynton really had us ready to play today. We came through in the clutch – clutch saves, clutch defensive stops and clutch goals.”
After the celebration, the Rebels posed for group photos – seniors, juniors, defense, even the members of the eighth grade Sharks team that won a title four years before. When they arrived in the high school ranks, the 10 of them helped usher in a new era for the Rebels.
“Eighth grade, we won the state championship. We knew we had the capability,” McCarty said. “We’ve been together since we started playing. The chemistry is all there. It all came together this year.”
The program had lost in three straight trips to the Division II title game from 2012 to 2014. A rough stretch in the state’s top division followed before a 7-6 season in 2017 started a turnaround that found its culmination on Sunday.
“Every single one of us has gotten so much better,” Rasmussen said. “We had some first year seniors that really improved. Our man down was spectacular. Our offense just zips the ball across. You can’t read us. We kind of feel like we’re unstoppable.”
“They’re great kids and good friends,” Cauchon said. “It’s a good day for South Kingstown lacrosse.”