*Photo gallery by Sport Shots WLB*

RUMSON - For nearly the entire game on Saturday, top-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven had been able to weather losing face-off after face-off against 10th-seeded A.L. Johnson with tough defense and timely scoring.

However, after the Crusaders' Matt Pedicine made it a tie game for the first time all afternoon with 39.2 seconds left in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group I final, A.L. Johnson's dominance in the face-off proved fatal to the Bulldogs' chances of winning a second straight sectional title.

Following Pedicine's goal, A.L. Johnson senior Joe Francisco, a Rutgers recruit, won his 10th face-off in 12 attempts, dodged a defender and whipped a shot into the upper left corner of the net for the game-winning goal with 29.8 seconds remaining as the Crusaders completed a stunning comeback to beat the Bulldogs 10-9 for their first sectional title in school history. They advance to face defending champion Mountain Lakes in the Group I final on Wednesday at Livingston High School.

It completed an unbelievable run by the sub-.500 Crusaders (10-11), who scored three unanswered goals in the final 2:46 to end the season in frustration for the Bulldogs (17-4) on their home field at Borden Stadium. Francisco (six goals) and Pedicine (three goals) combined for nine of A.L. Johnson's 10 goals in the win, and the duo also combined to win 19 of 23 face-offs in the game.

A.L. Johnson won its first NJSIAA sectional title in program history with a 10-9 comeback win over top-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven on Saturday. (Photo by Sport Shots WLB).

"My heart was pounding and there were butterflies in my stomach,'' Francisco said about his game-winner. "It's what we worked for all year. We did it for the family, our brothers, and all the fans that came here. I can't even put it into words how hard we worked for this."

A.L. Johnson's Joe Francisco scored a game-high six goals, including the game-winner with 29 seconds left, to lead the Crusaders to their first NJSIAA South Jersey Group I title. (Photo by Scott Stump)

Rumson had a chance to tie it when senior midfielder Ryan Campbell won the Bulldogs' first face-off of the second half with 29 seconds remaining, but Crusaders' goalie Marc Roessle made his 10th and final save of the afternoon on a shot by Campbell and then defender Jake Egner cleared the ball to midfield after an ensuing scramble to seal the upset.

"You have to give them credit,'' Rumson coach Andy Eastwood said. "They finished. They put the ball in the cage. No. 34 (Pedicine) had a couple great on-the-run goals."

Initially it looked like the seeds would hold true and Rumson would roll to its second straight sectional title when the Bulldogs dominated the first quarter in building a 4-0 lead that began when sophomore attack Robbie Garavante scored only 48 seconds into the game.

However, A.L. Johnson bounced back in the second quarter when Francisco broke the ice with the first of his six goals, firing in a shot from about 10 yards out to make it 4-1. Kyle Glassen then whipped a shot to the upper right corner to cut it to 4-2, followed by Pedicine bouncing in a shot for an unassisted tally that trimmed the margin to 4-3 with 3:23 left in the first half. That surge gave A.L. Johnson the confidence that it could play with the top seed, and the Crusaders kept attacking from there.

"As soon as we took the first dodge from up top, I knew we were going to keep dodging, beat our guys, pass it to cutters and score,'' Pedicine said.

"The second quarter has been our Achilles' heel all year,'' Eastwood said. "We come out strong, and then we had some minor breakdowns that led to a couple goals."

An unassisted goal by freshman midfielder Bryan Hess helped put Rumson back up by two goals and then the Bulldogs scored off a turnover when senior attack Colin Shea buried a shot off an assist by senior midfielder Chris Hubler for a 6-3 lead with 1:12 left in the second quarter. A.L. Johnson then capitalized on a man advantage when Francisco nailed a shot on the run to cut it to 6-4 at the half.

"That No. 8 (Francisco) is a real good shooter,'' Eastwood said. "He got his hands free, and he buried a few."

The opening minutes of the third quarter were critical, with either Rumson having the chance to push the lead to three goals or A.L. Johnson trying to keep the pressure on by closing the margin to one. Francisco kept the momentum on the visitors' side when he once again found the net on a straight-on shot from about 10 yards to cut it to 6-5 with 7:37 left in the quarter.

"We knew we were the underdogs,'' Francisco said. "The pressure was on them, so they knew they had a workhorse coming at them."

Rumson senior attack Dominic Padula answered with a goal off an assist by Shea to push the lead back to two goals, but A.L. Johnson kept battling as Pedicine scored from the left side to make it 7-6. The Crusaders nearly tied it on an ensuing shot by Francisco, but Rumson goalie Bryce Metzger made a great save to keep Rumson in front.

The Bulldogs answered when senior midfielder Chris Sutphen beat two defenders and then faked Roessle up high before dropping in a goal on the ground with only 12.4 seconds left in the third quarter for an 8-6 lead heading into the final period.

A.L. Johnson kept the pressure on, as Francisco scored on a man advantage to cut the lead to 8-7, but once again Sutphen had an answer when he beat two defenders and scored for a two-goal lead with 10:55 left in the game.

That would be the last goal of the afternoon for the Bulldogs, as A.L. Johnson continued to control the face-offs and Roessle made some big saves down the stretch. Rumson eventually began to concede the face-offs to try to limit easy scoring opportunities.

"We weren't winning them, so we tried to use the pole just to play 'D' right away, and they started to make some technical calls on us,'' Eastwood said. "It worked because they weren't getting fast breaks after that."

Rumson senior Chris Sutphen (in white) scored a pair of goals in the second half to keep the Bulldogs in front before A.L. Johnson's decisive comeback. (Photo by Scott Stump)

A wraparound shot off a restart by Francisco cut Rumson's lead to 9-8 with 2:46 left before A.L. Johnson took advantage of a critical call late in the game. Garavante forced a huge turnover that would have given Rumson a chance to run out the clock by taking possession with 1:10 left in the game with a man advantage because of an unnecessary roughness call on A.L. Johnson. However, on the same play, Garavante was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct, a dead ball foul that gave possession back to A.L. Johnson.

Pedicine took full advantage when he beat a defender to the right and placed a shot under the outstretched right leg of Metzger to give A.L. Johnson its first tie of the day at 9-9 and set the stage for Francisco's final heroics.

"After I scored that goal, I knew we were coming back to win it,'' Pedicine said. "I felt it."

The loss brought the brilliant careers of a group of 18 Rumson seniors to a bitter end after making history earlier this season by becoming the first team to win the Shore Conference Tournament four times in a row. The Bulldogs were hoping to get another crack at their first overall Group I title in program history, but came up just short.

"It's very frustrating,'' Eastwood said. "These kids worked really hard and put everything into it."

Box score

(10) A.L. Johnson 10, (1) Rumson-Fair Haven 9

A.L. Johnson (10-11)   0 4 2 4 -  10

Rumson-FH (17-4)      4 2 2 1 –  9

GOALS – R: Garavante, Padula 2, Seckler, Shea, Hess, Sutphen 3; A: Francisco 6, Glassen, Pedicine 3.

ASSISTS – R: Hubler 2, Shea, Sutphen.

SAVES – R: Metzger 10; A: Roessle 10.

Shots: A.L. Johnson, 34-26