BUFFALO — The stands at Canisius College had already cleared out. Hell, his entire team was long gone too. Hicksville High School rising senior Brandon Gamblin didn’t notice. He was locked in a duel with his own demons and an empty cage.
It was nearly 10 p.m. on Friday night, a half hour after one of the more physically and emotionally draining games of lacrosse Gamblin had ever played. A midfielder on the scholastic boys lacrosse team representing Long Island at the Empire State Games in Buffalo, favorite Long Island had just suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Central region.
The 8-7 defeat in sudden death overtime fell squarely on an offense which hardly possessed the ball in the first quarter and failed to score in the first 22:53 of the game. Sure, Gamblin did his part. He broke the ice with a powerful blast of a goal early in the third quarter to make it 5-1 and restore some much needed confidence.
But his shot was stopped by Central goalie Tyler White time and again in the second half. That’s why Gamblin stayed behind on a shadowy turf field bathed in the soft glow of the light towers, taking shot after shot at an empty cage.
“I was angry,” Gamblin said. “I felt we shouldn’t have lost that game.”
There’s no arguing with the result. Gamblin, a UMass commitment, played with a vengeance the rest of the way. After pouring in six goals to down New York City on Saturday, Gamblin proved just as unstoppable in the gold medal game on Sunday. He scored four times as Long Island (5-1) erased a 4-2 halftime deficit to beat previously unbeaten Central, 7-6. With the win, Long Island became the first region to earn gold in five straight Empire State Games since boys lacrosse became a sport in 1984.
The Kyle Keenan-to-Gamblin connection was so fluid, you’d think they had been teammates for longer than one month. In the end, the relationships the Long Island scholastic boys lacrosse team built — starting with tryouts in June and continuing with 12 exhibition games in Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – ended with a gold medal performance at the Empire State Games on Sunday in Buffalo.
“That was just unreal,” West Islip rising senior midfielder Michael Sagl said. “They were just finding each other. Keenan is a great feeder. Gamblin is a great shooter. They were finally able to hook up and it was just fun to watch.”
Keenan, an X attack, directed the offense with precision throughout the four-day tournament. That he had an uncanny ability to find fellow Smithtown West teammate James Pannell for open shots was no surprise. That he hooked up with Gamblin again and again spoke volumes of how well this team of all-stars meshed.
Keenan fed Gamblin for three of his four goals on Sunday.
“It’s not like I was looking for him. He was just open,” said Keenan, a Duke recruit. “He’s got a nose for the goal. He wants to score whenever he’s on the field. That’s his personality.”
It wouldn’t have been possible without the stellar play of Connetquot goalie Zach Oliveri (10 saves), who was in every respect the defensive stopper of the tournament. FOGO Jake Froccaro, a Port Washington junior, also played an important role after missing a game with a mild concussion suffered against Central.
Even Oliveri couldn’t stop Central the entire time. Long Island was victimized for goals twice in the final 1:14 of the first half when Ithaca’s Riley Lasda spun off his defender and broke free in the box. His score was followed by Tom Grimm’s quick strike to make it 4-2 Central with 43 seconds left. Grimm, a Syracuse commitment from Carthage, had the game-winner against Long Island on Friday.
The third quarter belonged to Long Island the entire tournament. This game was no exception. Pannell scored 1:39 into the third, and after pelting the Central goal with a barrage of shots, Garden City’s Tom Gordon scored the equalizer on a feed from Keenan with 4:01 left in the third. Gamblin juked past his defender and fired home the go-ahead goal to make it 5-3 with 1:37 left.
Long Island kept up the pressure from there. Keenan found Gamblin charging toward the net and the Hicksville scorer did the rest to extend the lead to 6-4 with 10:52 to go.
Fayetteville-Manlius attack Ari Waffle scooped in the rebound past Oliveri to make it 6-5 with 7:40 left.
But the Keenan-to-Gamblin connection struck once more to keep Central at arm’s length. Gamblin scored his 18th goal in six-game tournament – and fourth of the day – with 6:52 left.
“It was all a mindset game,” Gamblin said. “We needed to start playing smart, take smart opportunities.”
Jamesville-Dewitt’s Alex Hatem scored his second goal of the day on a diving play at the net close the gap to 7-6 with 4:20 left.
Long Island’s defense kept Central off balance from there. And after Central’s Austin Curtis received a one-minute penalty for slashing, Keenan and Sachem North’s Michael Andreassi held the ball and ran out the clock. All there was left to do was celebrate.
NOTE: Follow the Long Island boys lacrosse team’s quest for a fifth straight gold medal at: http://empirestatelacrosse.com