Wizards from the Lizards cast spells over Spencer’s title charge
Spencer 6 - 12 Hampstead
It was billed as a title-breaking shoot-out and SEMLA's big match-up didn't disappoint with firepower across the line-ups and a couple of MLL pro gunslingers running into town.
The honours went to the Men in Black, who claimed the top spot and the only 100% record in the Premier League, but this game will live long in the memories as a showpiece of domestic talent.
The supernatural skills of Matt Gibson and Tommy Palasek dominated the highlight reels and the social media buzz but the Spencer D heroics and goalie Rick Bone's shot-stopping are the tales that lax grandchildren should be told in years to come.
Thousands of people will one day claim to have been there when the Wizards from the Lizards graced the Earlsfield turf and the home team's Defensive unit stood firm with the bravery of an outgunned Magnificent Seven.
Gibson, the 27-year-old former Yale attacker, grabbed four goals and created chances out of thin air but the performance of Johnny Clark as his defensive shadow deserves high praise, as does the approach of entire Spencer team who took to the pro challenge with gusto.
The game started in frantic fashion with both teams looking edgy but it was Gibson's trickery on a man-up play that opened the door for Johnny Moore to start the scoring for Hampstead on four minutes.
Spencer's trademark fluidity appeared lumpy as passes misfired and they struggled to find rhythm. A long, laser-guided Rick Bone clearing pass seemed to settle and recalibrate them and when Clark performed the first of many take-aways from Gibson on half-way, the purple tide turned and Resh Panesar took the clearing pass and charged into the jaws of the Hampstead defence to find a lane and blast home an equaliser on nine minutes.
Galvanised, Spencer started to dominate and a Bone save from Australian international Will Pickett - the start of a goalie masterclass - initiated a prolonged possession that eventually freed Tom Carver to double fake on the doorstep for the go-ahead goal on 12 minutes.
Gibson was thwarted by Bone as the momentum seemed all Spencer. On 18 minutes Holmes seared home with a classic underarm lefty shot for 3-1. So far, so Spencer and at Q1 the sizeable crowd knew they were witnessing a classic.
Spencer were back executing clean, clinical passing, intelligent movement while Hampstead, clearly busting with talent, were failing to join the dots.
But the visitors stormed back with Gibson corkscrewing under the close attentions of Clark to somehow find Pickett for a neat finish and Hampstead were within one. They levelled almost straight from the face when Gibson managed to wriggle free and shapeshifter through the cover like mercury to score with a flick shot. 3-3.
Holmes was denied after a fast-break from Nick Acutt's clean Face-Off win but they soon made it count with a trademark Spencer move that saw Holmes feed to Joe Darkins’ slashing cut and cool finish to regain the lead. Huge physical efforts by both teams made for some scrappy periods but the action remained fast and furious.
Palasek was stopped three times in his tracks as he wheeled and twisted in from X with Tom Leahy, Clark and Tom Bailey sliding sharply with maximum impact all afternoon. That door remained tightly shut.
Spencer went ahead again as Carver fed Will Walker who got into perfect shooting stance and unleashed a pile driver to make it 5-3.
But Hampstead’s moving parts were starting to link up and, steadied by Ryan Myerberg's excellence at the heart of the D, the threat went from isolated brilliance to co-ordinated menace.
Pickett grabbed his second from an almost inevitable Gibson behind-the-back feed, and a bulldozing strike from England international Will Hardy, after he'd earlier been denied by a late Rob Arnott check when bearing down on goal.
5-5 at half time and both teams had reason to be confident that they could claim an epic victory. Spencer were in touch with their cool possession game and exemplary teamwork while Hampstead were gelling and looking dangerous in their rapid transition game that got the ball to the double-headed monster of Gibson and Palasek.
The dial was switched to lax overdrive for Hampstead with five minutes of magical mayhem featuring the two New York players who were now reaching deep into their Harry Potter bag of spell-binding tricks.
Palasek, who notched 24 goals in his final year at Syracuse, made it 6-5 and then two goals from Gibson, one a physics defying body contortion to get an inch of space and score with a behind the back shot, and the second a precision finish from Palasek's pinpoint feed. Five minutes into Q3 and Hampstead were 8-5 up. Blink and you missed it.
Spencer were reeling but continued their heroic effort to tame the rampaging New Yorkers. Gibson delivered a killer blow two minutes before the end of Q3 with another disco-feet move through a forest of poles to score past Bone.
At 10-5 many teams would have raised the white flag but Spencer soldiered on with co-captains Tom Roche and Darkins energising their troops for a ferocious late onslaught.
The face-off unit came off marginally the better with Acutt winning the cleanest of possessions from the midfield cauldron but Hardy unleashed a tank-buster from 15 yards that flew into the top right corner for 10-5.
Spencer responded well and Walker found a chink to boom in a fierce shot to grab a goal back and the home team exhibited amazing depths of competition to keep battling back with Holmes, Walker and Carver denied by Brain Vanderbossche who was in excellent form. The attacking firepower grabbed the headline but the goalkeeping at both ends was also first class with impossible saves and textbook technique peppered through a glittering afternoon.
Spencer kept up the pressure but Myerberg was masterful at marshalling a defence, featuring the returning Colin Shaw, that kept Spencer to just one goal in the second half. Panesar continued to be a handful as he charged and challenged tirelessly but Hampstead D had a huge pass knock-down count which disrupted the Spencer flow.
The home team’s Herculean effort began to sap legs if not spirits and Hardy completed his hat-trick after 15 goal-less minutes in Q4 of an absorbing match.
Nathan Jackson then initiated the final blow by winning possession in broken play and driving up field to link up with Palasek who took the pass, took a step and fired home for 12-6. Spencer had another couple of chances but Vandenbossche was equal and a breathtaking game ended to generous applause from the crowd.
Spencer's tight post-game huddle displayed their strong collective will and Roche vowed: "We've been beaten but we will regroup and fight back. The league wasn't decided today."
Hampstead displayed some incredible lacrosse and the skills weren't limited to their MLL stars while Spencer matched the visitors stride for stride to emerge with huge kudos for dealing admirably with the high level threat.
The big black train rolls into Hillcroft this Saturday with its MLL stars believed to be shirting up for another thriller but there is action across SEMLA with the crucial basement clash between Cambridge and Bristol Bombers: 8th v 10th. A home win for the students could drag Bristol into the dog fight while East Grinstead in 9th need a result at home to 4th-placed Reading.
Hitchin in 7th have the tough task of taming a wounded Spencer and Blues entertain Cardiff, who are enjoying a good campaign in 6th
Q Scores: 3-1 / 5-5 / 5-9 / 6-12
Spencer: Walker 2, Carver, Darkins, Holmes, Panesar
Hampstead: Gibson 4, Hardy 3, Hickman 2, Palasek 2, Moore
Cambridge v Bristol Bombers
East Grinstead v Reading
Hillcroft v Hampstead
Hitchin v Spencer
Blues v Harlequins