Plenty went wrong for Rumson in 2015.

And then, just like that, everything went right.

An up and down regular season followed by a loss to Southern in the Shore Conference Tournament wasn't exactly a solid foundation for a state championship run, yet the talented but inexperienced Bulldogs found a way to put it all together at the best time of the year to make history.

Rumson forged a groundbreaking postseason that culminated in a 9-8 overtime victory over Mountain Lakes to win the NJSIAA Group I title, the program's first and the first for any Shore Conference team. With nearly the entire starting lineup plus several key reserves returning, Rumson is looking to claim another state championship and push deeper into the Tournament of Champions in 2016.

"We come in with a lot of the same expectations we've had since I've been here as a freshman," said senior attackman Robbie Garavente. "Our major goals have always been winning the Shore Conference Tournament and a state championship, and after winning a state title and making the T.O.C. last year we know what we're capable of when we play our best. We don't want to move backward, we want to continue to move forward."

After capturing the NJSIAA Group I title last season, Rumson is looking for more behind a large cast of returning starters. (Photo by Bob Badders).

Head coach Andy Eastwood noted Rumson's breakthrough last season "wasn't the flip of a light switch". The Bulldogs had been knocking on the door for years. They had won four straight SCT titles going into last season and have reached the final in six straight years. To say they've been the class of the Shore Conference would be putting it mildly. In 2013 Rumson won its first state sectional title before falling to Mountain Lakes, 8-6, in the Group I title game. In 2014 Rumson reached the Jersey Group I sectional final.

To a man, Rumson's players and coaches attribute their late-season success last year to an all-encompassing belief that did not exist prior to the state tournament. An 0-4 start had them doubting their abilities, and a loss to Southern in the SCT final had them thinking maybe it just wasn't their year.

"At the end of the season when we lost to Southern in the SCT final it felt like the season was over," said senior defenseman Ian Clarke. "But after Holmdel (a 7-1 win to clinch the Class B North division title) we thought about it and we knew we had a chance. We had the talent, we just had to play as one and come together, and we did that to win a state title."

"I believed in them, but whether or not they believed in each other at that point I'm not sure," Eastwood said. "But by the end they believed, and they knew the had the ability to accomplish something great."

Winning a state title and doing it against a powerhouse program such as Mountain Lakes changed everything for Rumson from a confidence standpoint. In the past the Bulldogs knew they had the talent and thought they could win a state championship. Now they know they can do it. The ultimate irony is that Rumson's 2015 squad wasn't being billed as a juggernaut during the preseason.

"It was supposed to be a rebuilding year after losing 18 seniors," Garavente said. "No one expected us to get to where we did. We played in the state tournament like we had nothing to lose."

Having little to no experience last season and having to start many juniors and sophomores means Rumson now comes into the 2016 season with a veteran, battle-hardened group in all areas. The entire starting attack line returns with Garavente and seniors Griffin Schultz and Henry Sillen. Junior Charlie Curran, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime in the Group I state final, is also back as the first reserve. Add in junior Colin Pavluk and sophomore Wyatt Feinberg and Rumson has very good depth up front.

Rumson senior attackman Robbie Garavente. (Photo by Mark Brown/B51 Photography).

"I've been playing with Henry and Griff' ever since fifth grade, and we've continued to improve as players together," Garavente said. "It's been an amazing ride with those guys. They're two of my best friends on and off the field and it means the world to play with them for our last year together."

Rumson has balanced scoring, but Garavente, the reigning Class B North Player of the Year and a Shore Sports Network first-team All-Shore selection, is the kind of player that can take over a game.

"I believe we have several kids that have that same capability right now, but Robbie, yes, when he is on his 'A' game he's as good as there is," Eastwood said. "He's one of the best attackmen in New Jersey."

Juniors Bryan Hess and Matt Waters lead the group of midfielders with fellow junior Ryan Tuorto and senior ground-ball ace Lachlan Hull. Senior Butch Clark is the face-off specialist. Junior Alex Werner will get some minutes, as well.

Rumson graduated first-team All-Shore defenseman Cooper Cuje, but returns an excellent group in front of returning goalies Kyle Knapp and Conor Deverin. Clarke and junior Emmett Jennings anchor a group that also features junior Dan Maloney, sophomore Stephen Edler and freshman Tommy Bavuso.

"From a defensive standpoint our communication has gotten a lot better and our sliding recently is the best I've seen," Clarke said. "On offense they've been able to move the ball very quickly and not force it. We're playing like a team that's already played eight games."

Clark is the cornerstone of the defense and a vocal leader on the field, checking two very important boxes for a team that wants to compete for championships.

"Ian brings the intangibles," Eastwood said. "He's the quarterback back there. He is doing a lot of the communicating and he's a senior leader. As much as it's all about communicating, some guys on defense don't like to talk as much. Ian is always a positive, vocal leader getting guys in position and calling out plays. He's an excellent defender."

Rumson's schedule is loaded once again, but the Bulldogs wouldn't have it any other way. They know a big reason for their state championship last season was playing against some of the best in New Jersey during the first four weeks of the season. Nonconference opponents this year include defending T.O.C. champion Bridgewater-Raritan, St. Augustine, Bergen Catholic and St. Peter's Prep. They also have a Shore Conference nondivisional games against Southern, and already own a win over Christian Brothers Academy. They dropped their first game of the season to Caldwell, 7-6, but rebounded with a 9-5 win over defending South Jersey Group III champion Shawnee.

Rumson will be team focused squarely on whichever opponent is next, but the Bulldogs still have an eye on their main goals. The first of which is to win another division title, followed by taking back the SCT title. Then it's on to the state tournament where they will be up in Group II. They know they are among the best teams in New Jersey, but also realize nothing is guaranteed. They won't sneak up on any team this season, and they're not trying to.

"Going into the SCT last year we didn't have experience in big games," Garavente said. "It was a learning point for all of us. Now having those games under our belt, we know we have what it takes to accomplish great things."

 

Lacrosse editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.