Freshman Marshal Johnson leading the Attack. (Peter Caty/The Mirror)

Third-quarter. On the road. Tie game. Your team in need of a defining moment. Your team in search of a way to win an easier-said-than-done conference game.

Seems like the sort of stereotypical moment you draw up as the first of the year for a prized freshman, a highly-touted recruit, one of the team’s blossoming stars.

Still, the game-winning goal wasn’t exactly how it initially worked out for freshman midfielder Marshall Johnson, who tallied the team’s game-winning goal in the third-quarter this weekend in the Stags’ victory over Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) opponent Air Force, the team’s seventh victory in its past eight games. As a result of the win, and for the third consecutive week, the Stags remain nationally ranked, currently at No. 17 in the Media poll and 18th overall in the USILA Coaches’ Poll.

At the outset of the season, Johnson found himself on the sidelines and helplessly out of action by virtue of an injury, not exactly the scripted plan for a freshman entering the year with no shortage of pre-spring attention.

Aside from the fact that the New England Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (NEILA) tabbed him as the region’s co-Rookie of the Year, Johnson was only a few months removed from a senior year that did go exactly as planned: a 41-goal season, a state championship for Canandaigua Academy, his alma matter, and one of New York state’s highest honors, the Greater Rochester Player of the Year Award.

“The kid is just a proven winner,” Copelan said. He’s the son of a coach so he really thinks the game and he has a really cerebral approach to the game that I think most people, especially freshman, don’t take to the game.”

Then came the injury-riddled preseason. As if the nagging damage itself wasn’t enough, in the initial games that Johnson missed, the Stags dropped two of the team’s first three games to Villanova and Lafaeyette.

“The transition was tough,” Johnson said of the collegiate game. “But I talked to Coach (Copelan) a lot last year during their season a year ago, and over the summer, and he kind of told me what I needed to do be a factor. I listened to him, did the team workout, listened to the other guys, the senior and their advice.

“And then it kind of just happened to it,” “he added.

Now, with last Saturday’s game-winning goal and at least one point in seven of the team’s last eight games, all of which were wins, it seems as if the freshman is just beginning to show his flashes of brilliance.

For Copelan and the Stags, the timing couldn’t be better, as the team prepares for its second ECAC showdown of April in the form of a weekend clash with second-place Denver in the inaugural ESPNU Warrior Classic, a nationally televised double-header this Saturday to be held at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn and a game with obvious postseason implications.

A week later, the Stags travel to Byrd Stadium and College Park, Md. for a much-anticipated game against the Terps, Copelan’s former employer and a team that recruited Johnson prior to his decision to come to Fairfield.

“It’s great to be able to play those high caliber team,” Johnson said. “Growing up, you dream of playing a team like that or playing against and beating those teams. It’s as big as it gets.”

As for Coplean, he feels overly confident that the team has navigated through the “ebb and flows” of the midseason schedule and seems poised for the stretch run.

“We had a great week of practice,” Copelan said. “We have to tighten up our stuff and get back to playing our best ball. Hopefully we’ll be playing our best ball when it matters most.”

With Johnson and fellow freshman Sam Snow, who leads the team in both goals and assists on the season, just beginning to flash their tremendous upside, the Stags certainly like their chances this weekend beyond.

“They’re both good lacrosse players – but they’re great people,” Copelan said. “They represent exactly what I want Fairfield lacrosse to represent.”

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