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Yorktown's Connor Vercruysse no longer looks like an underclassman. Baby fat has been replaced by hard-earned muscle and peach fuzz has given way to stubble.
In Yorktown's season opener against Columbine (CO) on Wednesday, Vercruysse showed how much his game has changed, too.
The Rutgers-bound junior attackman scored a game-high four goals to lead the Huskers (1-0) to an 8-5 win over the Rebels (4-1) at West Point's Shea Stadium.
"I tried to get in shape, get bigger and lose some fat," Vercruysse said of his offseason transformation.
And the hard work paid off immediately, as Vercruysse tallied a pair of first-quarter goals to help Yorktown jump out to an early 4-1 lead.
"We always try to lay it on (the opposition) in the first quarter to get above them," Vercruysse said.
Columbine — which flew in from Colorado last night — played defense for roughly 90 percent of the opening quarter. Yorktown faceoff middies Danny Manning (1G) and Luke Palmadesso controlled the dot and attackmen Nick Bonitatibus (3A) and Nick Mariano (1G, 2A) created numerous turnovers on the ride. Mariano scored off a setup from Bonitatibus to make it 3-1 at the 4:13 mark. Sophomore middie Billy Strassman buried an unassisted goal with 10 seconds left to stretch the lead to 4-1.
"We just moved the ball well," said Mariano, a senior captain who will play at UMass next year. "Our faceoff guys were doing a great job and they got every ground ball. We had the ball most of the time on offense."
It was everything a coach could possibly want in a season-opening quarter, however, it didn't last. The Rebels played Yorktown pretty evenly over the final three quarters, matching them goal-for-goal.
"I wish we would have kept it up the rest of the game," Huskers coach Dave Marr said. "We were moving pretty well off the ball and we rode really well early in the game and got a couple possessions back-to-back. Once the second quarter came, we sort of stopped our feet a little bit and started to slow down. They kind of watched everybody instead of playing off the ball."
According to Columbine coach Matt Plitnick, it took some time adjusting to Yorktown's speed on and off the ball.
"(Yorktown) has a lot of fast and shifty guys that we just don't see in Colorado," said Plitnick, a native of Scarsdale. "It took us about a quarter and a half or two quarters to gauge their speed a little bit and then we started to run with them and cover them a little better. We started to build our confidence. We saw that even though they are extremely talented, we can play with them. Once we started getting that confidence, it really kind of turned the game around."
Each team scored once in the second quarter as Yorktown took a 5-2 lead into the half. Columbine middie Auston Stackhouse struck first at 9:55 to make it 4-2. Stony Brook-bound middie Brian Prestreau responded for Yorktown, cranking a shot just beneath the bar with 41 seconds left.
Vercruysse buried back-to-back goals to open the third, stretching Yorktown's lead to 7-2 with 2:24 left in the quarter. Ryan Kelly (2G) and Stebbins responded with two straight goals for Columbine, trimming the deficit to 7-4 with 11:44 left in regulation.
But the Rebels would never close the three-goal gap. Manning finished a setup from Nick Del Bene on the doorstep to stretch the Huskers' lead to 8-4 with 9:53 left. Kelly capped the scoring at 8:34.
Overall, it was a strong performance by Yorktown's defense, which dominated in six-on-six situations. Columbine — which scored an average of 14.5 goals a game en route to a 4-0 start — did the bulk of its damage in transition and off broken plays. Despite playing together for the first time as a close defense unit, Jack Phelan, Austin Fusco and Trevor Koelsch operated like a well-oiled machine. The trio communicated well and were sharp clearing the ball. Austin Graham was solid in the cage with eight saves.
"Our defense is very, very strong," Mariano said. "They are very, very athletic and they love to hit."
With a matchup against rival John Jay-Cross River looming on Saturday evening, the Huskers' defense will need another strong effort. Yorktown has owned the rivalry of late, winning four straight and six of the past seven. John Jay hasn't defeated the Huskers since 2010. Yorktown edged John Jay, 9-8, in overtime of last year's Section 1 Class B final.
"This was the first real game, but John Jay is really the season opener for us," Vercruysse said. "It's going to be awesome."
GAME NOTES: Yorktown's Danny Manning and Luke Palmadesso went a combined 12-for-17 on faceoffs … Columbine will continue its East Coast trip with games against John Jay-Cross River on Thursday and Fordham Prep on Saturday … Yorktown will christen the new turf at Charlie Murphy Field on April 2 against Putnam Valley. A press-box was also added to the facility.