When your time is short, you learn to make every moment count.
Gettysburg College attackman Tommy Heller suffered a grisly leg fracture in the offseason that put his senior season in jeopardy. Some, including his physicians, thought he might never play again. Heller wasn’t among them. He was relentless in his rehabilitative efforts and finally able to contribute. After a couple of cameos in the last two games of the regular season, Heller was a difference-maker. His team-high five goals included the first of the contest and three in a critical second-half spurt that allowed the Bullets to survive with a 15-13 verdict over Dickinson in the Centennial Conference semifinals at Shirk Field on Wednesday afternoon.
The victors advanced to Saturday’s final against Ursinus, which edged Franklin & Marshall 12-11 on Wednesday.
“I’m just really grateful to get back out there with the guys,” said Heller. “Everyone knows what I’ve been through and how hard I’ve worked to get here. I wasn’t expecting to play in this game but I started feeling pretty good on Monday. I had a great day of practice on Tuesday and Coach (Hank Janczyk) believed in me. My doctors were telling me I probably wouldn’t be able to play. I wouldn’t be here without the dedication of our training staff.”
The Red Devils (11-6) overcame an early deficit and actually took a 10-9 lead – their first of the day – with four minutes left in the third quarter. That proved their high water mark as the Bullets (14-3) scored five unanswered goals to seize control. Jack Fletcher and defenseman Mitch Wycoff each added a goal to the jag – Fletcher off a turnover and Wycoff on a power drive down gasoline alley out of a face-off. Heller’s final finder made it 14-10 and the Orange & Blue was able to hang on.
“He looked good on Monday and I thought the guys might be going easy on him,” said Janczyk of Heller’s effort. “Then Tuesday we told the guys to go after him and he held his own. We struggled with the decision but we decided to play him since he looked so good. Here’s a guy who hasn’t played all year. We really believe in Tommy. (Assistant Coach) Dylan (Hoff) suggested we play him and I trusted his judgment. He has a lot of heart – he’s a leader. It’s almost surreal – it’s like a movie.”
The teams traded goals in the first quarter. After Heller worked himself open for a hard overhand right, the Devils’ Jack O’Connell got inside position and slipped a shot past Bullet freshman tender Scott MacMillan. Fletcher dished to Jack Harvey who had time to triple-pump and found the back of the net. John Lockwood tied it at 2-apiece when he exploded for a wrap-around. Michael McCormick scored the first of his four goals when he fired while falling to make it 3-2.
The Devils took immediate advantage of a Bullet penalty when Joel Mayo fed Brodie Phillips for the finish to knot it at 3. Harvey found a seam between defenders running left and unleashed a laser to put the Bullets up after one period, 4-3.
The hosts ripped off the first three goals of the second stanza and seemed to take control. McCormick found the net twice through tight windows and Fletcher fed Heller for a slam to push the margin to 7-3.
Dickinson showed its explosiveness when it lit the lamp three times in just 34 seconds. Nick Goles shrugged off illegal contact to break a 15-minute scoring drought. O’Connell’s quick flick finished off an extra man goal when his high cheese found the top shelf. When Gettysburg won the ensuing face-off then turned it over, O’Connell was there to make them pay. He scored in the half’s final minute to draw the guests within 7-6.
O’Connell struck again early in the third and suddenly the game was tied. Elon Tuckman stuffed home a rebound to put the Bullets ahead and Andrew Garstka beat Dickinson goalie Cole Pellicano with an off-speed delivery to make it a two-goal lead. Undeterred, Brodie Phillips rammed home a pair of goals for the equalizer before O’Connell got wide open in front of the crease and Lockwood found him to give the visitors their only advantage and set the stage for a heroic finish.
“There’s no quit in our team either,” said Heller. “We were just going to keep fighting. They threw a bunch of different defenses at us but our offense was ready. That’s a testament to our scout team. We were prepared.”
Wycoff’s goal was his eighth of the season – no one familiar with the program can recall a defenseman with more. The junior leads the team in ground balls, far ahead of any teammate.
“It’s like the whole game – it’s a fight,” said Wycoff of the arcane stat. “It’s an instinct at this point.”
Heller heaped praise on his teammate.
“Whenever Mitch brings the ball over the line, you hear the goalie yelling to get it out of his stick,” he said of the defenseman. “They know how dangerous he is. Now we have a chance to win the conference championship and we’ve got to get it done.”
Janczyk also weighed in on the subject.
“He’s special,” said Janczyk. “He’s one of the best defenders we’ve ever had here – and what he can do on the other side of the field and facing off on the wing is unique. We use him every chance we get. He’s out of gas but still gives us four quarters. He’s a stallion – a warrior.”
McCormick restored the four-goal margin (15-11) when he tickled twine out of a pirouette. Dickinson scored two last-gasp goals to make it close but the Bullets were able to run out the clock.
O’Connell paced the Red Devils with six goals and an assist. Phillips added three goals and two assists in the losing effort. Pellicano had 20 saves to eight for MacMillan, but the Gettysburg freshman had a pair of clutch saves, twice stuffing O’Connell in the waning minutes. Freshman Joe Persche won 14 of 20 face-offs
Janczyk’s faith in his team never waivered as the Bullets won their sixth consecutive matchup.
“I think we surprised Dickinson,” said Janczyk. “They weren’t expecting Tommy to play. It forced them to change their defense. When they took the lead, we stayed the course with our freshman face-off guy and freshman goalie. (After we got the lead back) we had to take the ball out of the air and not give them so many chances.”
Dickinson 3 3 4 3 – 13
Gettysburg 4 3 6 2 – 15
Goals: D-Jack O’Connell 6, Brodie Phillps 3, Nick Goles 2, John Lockwood, Alex Hosker; G-Tommy Heller 5, Michael McCormick 4, Jack Harvey 2, Jack Fletcher, Andrew Garstka, Mitch Wykoff, Elon Tuckman. Assists: D-Lockwood 3, Joel Mayo 2, Phillips 2, Tucker Booth, Hosker, O’Connell; G-Fletcher 3, Garstka 2, Andrew Horn. Shots: D-37 ; G-58. Ground balls: D-29; G-36. Face-offs: D-16; G-14. Saves: D-20 ; G-8.