New London — Any win in the brutally competitive New England Small College Athletic Conference is worth celebrating.
But Tuesday's 5-4 victory meant a little something extra to the Connecticut College men's lacrosse team, playing its final regular season home game.
It represented another sign of progress for the Camels (7-5, 4-4) and came at the expense of rival Amherst (8-5, 4-4).
When the game ended, the jubilant Camels raced onto Silfen Field, surrounding senior goalie Rob Moccia who made one last big save in the final 30 seconds to seal the win.
"Unbelievable," said Clay Hillyer, a senior defender and team captain. "I think we've really found our identity in the past week or two in what we're trying to do in terms of really locking down on defense and our offense working together with the defense."
The results support Hillyer. The Camels have won five of their last six games, putting an 0-3 start far in the rearview mirror. They moved into a three-way tie for fifth with Amherst and Colby.
The top eight teams qualify for the NESCAC tournament.
"We knew this was a huge game for both teams in the standings," Conn coach Dave Cornell said. "The winner of this will have head-to-head for playoff seeding, so it was just a really big game. We wanted to keep our momentum going here."
The Camels scored high marks in the effort department but earned a lower grade for execution, relying heavily on their veteran defense.
With Hillyer, Brogan O'Connor, Mike Brennan and Moccia, who finished with nine saves, serving as anchors, they limited the Lord Jeffs well under their 10.25 goals per game average.
"We definitely asked a lot of our defense," Cornell said. "They were challenged more than they needed to be."
Conn never trailed but also never felt comfortable.
Junior Andrew Freedman opened the scoring with the first of his two goals and sophomore JR Hartgers increased the lead to 2-0 in the first quarter. Junior Stephen Eicher's unassisted goal made it 3-1 at halftime.
Play became sloppy at times in the second half but Conn's defense remained stout. The Camels pressured shooters into firing from distance.
When the Lord Jeffs were on target, Moccia often came up big, stopping several dangerous attempts.
"We believe in our goalie," Hillyer said. "We're going to let them take 10 to 17 yards shot all day and we're going to contest those shots. If you make a lot of those shots, you're going to beat us. But there aren't too many teams in Division III that are going to beat Rob Moccia from there."
Moccia saved his biggest save for last. After the Camels turned the ball over while trying to run out of clock, Moccia stopped Amherst's Devin Acton's close range shot with about 30 seconds remaining.
In the second half, junior John Lyons scored his team leading 21st goal and also set up Freedman's goal with 6:39 left for a 5-3 lead.
Conn finishes the regular season at Bates Saturday and at Wesleyan Wednesday.
"Our leadership in our senior class this year is great," Cornell said. "Most of the games that we've lost this year, with the exception of one, we felt like, not that we just could have won, but we felt like we were better than those teams. We just hadn't put it together yet.
Safe to say, the Camels are putting it together now.