When it comes down to the final few games in the Independent School League, you can bet that one team is carrying fate in its own hands, and that everyone else is looking to whack it right out.
As fate would have it, it sat firmly in the hands of two teams, with a few others salivating for the chance to jump up into the fray should they falter.
Instead, both Governor’s Academy and Noble & Greenough held on firmly, carefully navigating the final week of play to each capture a share of the ISL crown last month.
“It’s pretty stressful,” said Nobles head coach Matt Rowley, who garnered his first league title in his ninth season at the helm. “I looked at the last six or so years of the league where the secondplace teams were going into the final few weeks, and four of the last six years there has been a team that’s had fate in their own hands and lost to a team that they probably should not have lost to, to lose a share of the title.
“We were aware of that without being scared of it.”
Both teams finished with a 14-1 record in league play, with each program taking varying routes to the top.
Nobles opened with three straight losses to national powers Torrey Pines (Calif.), Poway (Calif.), and IMG National (Fla.). Then, after winning two non-conference matches, they were tripped up by defending ISL co-champion St. Sebastian’s (13-2) by a score of 10-8 in their league opener.
While Governor’s also was unable to solve IMG National in its season opener, the Red Dogs rolled out four straight ISL wins in response, including a massive, 12-11 victory over the other defending co-champ — and recent ISL measuring stick — Belmont Hill (13-2).
“Our stated goal was to go out and honor McCrae (Williams, a former standout for the program who passed away last September) and play in his image, and play a season he’d be proud of,” Rowley explained. “Winning the title wasn’t in the conversation, especially after losing the first league game of the season; you’re up against the ropes immediately.
“To be down 0-1, your goal very quickly becomes, ‘We just have to be the best team we can be, and we have to honor our friend and teammate and former player.’ Then you’re just hoping you don’t slip up until you get to Belmont Hill. Then you’ve got to beat Belmont Hill for the first time in nine years. That’s no easy task. They’re an incredibly well coached team with great players.
“After you beat Belmont Hill, you can start to think about it.”
That time for the Bulldogs came in early May, on the heels of eight straight ISL victories, and they began seeing an opportunity to grasp at fate when they took down the Hillers, 12-9, with five games to play.
Felled by Phillips Exeter in non-league action, Governor’s remained undeterred in league play under first-year head coach Steve Moreland, who saw his team standing at 11-0 in league play after thwarting St. Sebastian, 11-9, to set up a showdown with Nobles.
When the Bulldogs came out of that battle with a commanding 12-5 win, the two teams stood at 11-1, each with three games left on their schedules and destiny ticking up the pressure a few extra notches.
Governor’s was quick to bounce back and would carry fate to the end, needing just to beat Middlesex in its final game to clinch at least a share of the crown.
Meanwhile, Nobles would run its win streak to 12 straight, but on the eve of the penultimate tilt of the season versus Rivers, the team underperformed in practice.
“I venture to say we had two bad practices all year, and one of them was in the last two weeks,” Rowley said. “We rolled that into the first 15, 16, 20 minutes of game time at Rivers and just didn’t perform well. The good thing is they know they can perform well; we have a faceoff guy (John Dixon, who won 233 draws on the season) we know is going to get us the ball and we just have to make intelligent plays. Once we started to do that, we were fine.”
This was all going down at the same time that Governor’s was on the verge of locking down its share, and while curiosity of the other’s circumstances remained, there was too much at hand to even contemplate what was happening elsewhere in that moment.
“I felt like one of us was going to falter. Neither of us did,” Rowley said. “Once you get down 8-3, you’d be a crazy man to try and figure out the score of the other game. I doubt I would have, anyways, but in that moment, we just needed to worry about ourselves.”
Governor’s would go on to defeat Middlesex, 13-7, for their seventh title in 13 seasons. Luke Moriarty and Patrick Flaherty stood strong on defense, as they had all year, and were backed by a Zach Ludd hat trick, bringing the senior’s point total to 77 (35 goals, 42 assists) on the year.
At the same time, Nobles came back to clear Rivers, 13-9, behind four goals and four assists from Harvard-bound Hayden Cheek, who led the ISL in points on the year, scoring 54 goals and assisting on 58 others
With the win, fate was passed into their hands as they aimed down Milton Academy and connected for an 18-9 triumph, as Will Zink (52 goals, 32 assists), Nick Loring (50 goals, 16 assists) and Jett Dziama (49 goals, 10 assists) continued their offensive onslaught to the very end.
It was the third time in four seasons that two teams shared the ISL title, including the 2015 campaign when Governor’s last captured the crown alongside Belmont Hill.
For Nobles, it was the program’s third ISL title, the last coming in 2006, while Governor’s captured its ninth league championship.
“Coach Moreland and I have been friends for a long time,” Rowley said. “I really respect him as a person and as a coach. We had our coaches meeting and had a chance to reflect on the season. Interesting first year for him, ninth year in the league for me. Took a little bit longer for me than it took him. It’s great to have him; I’m really happy for him.”