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SEA GIRT — From the minute Manasquan fell in the Shore Conference Tournament final, the Warriors turned their attention to winning a state championship.

Now they’re only one win away.

Top-seeded Manasquan defeated fifth-seeded Hopewell Valley, 12-6, at the Sea Girt Army Camp on Wednesday in the semifinals of the NJSIAA South Group II playoffs to reach a sectional final for the first time in program history. Freshman attackman Canyon Birch scored four goals, junior midfielder John Moran finished with two goals and two assists and junior defenseman Kyle LeBlanc led a stout defensive effort.

The Warriors will host second-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven in the South Group II title game on Saturday. It will be a rematch of the SCT final won by Rumson, 8-5, and will also be the first time two Shore Conference teams will meet in a state sectional championship game. Rumson defeated Seneca, 8-3, in the other semifinal game.

“It means a lot knowing we’re one of the best in program history,” LeBlanc said. “But it’s just more motivation to finish it and take that championship home.”

Junior midfielder Pat Felstedt had one goal and two assists and freshman midfielder James Pendergist scored twice. Paul Krueger, Jon Tonkovich and Jarrett Birch all scored once. Junior face-off midfielder Matt Thermann won 17 of 23 draws in another standout performance and junior goalie Tom Pollock made five saves in back of a defense that was relentless and unyielding at the most critical junctures of the game.

“As a whole, when everything clicks it’s great,” LeBlanc said. “We’re playing great on defense, Thermann is doing well at face-off X and the offensive is putting in goals, and it helps out everybody when you know the defense isn’t going to let up that many and the offense is going to score a lot.”

“This one was just a good overall effort where we fought it out and got the ‘W’,” said Manasquan head coach Sean Cunningham. “The kids rallied to it.”

The Warriors’ depth in the midfield played a major factor against a Hopewell Valley team which plays only one line of middies. Felstedt, Moran, Pendergist, Paul Krueger, Pete Degnan, Devan Carroll, Conor Kinneally, and Brian Paturzzo made life rough for the Bulldogs as the game progressed.

“Shifts in the midfield were a big thing,” Cunningham said. “They were exclusively on one group of midfielders and we scouted that on film and went over it in the game plan. We wanted to run our two lines and be smart; short-shift them when we had to and long-shift them when we thought they were dragging and we could really burn them out. We made them sprint for a while and got their legs tired, and we able to drag them out and open the game up.”

Nick DeGennaro gave Hopewell Valley (10-10) a 3-2 lead 1:08 into the second quarter, but Manasquan responded by scoring the final five goals of the quarter to take a 7-3 lead into halftime. Pendergist’s unassisted strike at 4:22 tied the game and Felstedt set up Canyon Birch for a goal 43 seconds later to give Manasquan the lead for good.

Goals by Pendergist and Canyon Birch put Manasquan up 10-4 in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, but Hopewell went on a brief run to pull to within 10-6. Manasquan’s defense rose up again, however, and LeBlanc came through with a key takeaway on a man-down kill that led to Jarrett Birch rifling one past Lyle Healey for an 11-6 Manasquan advantage with 5:23 to play.

“The second quarter cracked things open and the third quarter was more of an anaconda effort just squeezing the life out,” Cunningham said. “(Hopewell) is a good team and they’re going to come back and get their goals. That was a great pick by Kyle on the man-down and then we turn that around into two quick goals to ice the game. The defensive stand at the end of the game was just fantastic.”

Balanced scoring is so crucial at this stage of the season, and that was another strength of Manasquan’s that was evident on Wednesday. Jarrett Birch, one of the top attackmen in the Shore Conference, was hit hard below the belt on a check in the first quarter and took a while to recover. It was no problem for the Warriors as they spread the ball around and didn’t miss a beat.

“We have five other guys out there at any given point and nine guys overall that are going to put the ball in the back of the net,” Cunningham said. “And if they’re not getting goals they’re finding ways to get it to other guys, whether that translates to assists or just a smart play. It’s a great luxury as a coach going into a game.”

“Jarrett got dinged up early with that one check and he just wasn’t going to recover (quickly),” Cunningham said. “I don’t care how tough you are, that’s a debilitating hit. But he ground through and by the end of the game he was getting his legs back. He found his goal and it was a big one. That’s his mentality, he’s gonna hard-charge and go. He’s a tough kid.”

Now Manasquan gets a second shot at Rumson. The two teams were expected to meet for the Shore Conference title and the game produced a classic. Now they’ll meet with a state title on the line in a showcase moment for the Shore. The winner will face the North Group II winner on June 1 in the Group II championship. The heavy favorite going in was two-time defending champion Summit, but the Hilltoppers were shocked by Ramapo, 7-6 in double overtime, on Wednesday, so the door is open for either Rumson or Manasquan to make a run to the Tournament of Champions. Rumson did so last season with an overtime win over Mountain Lakes to take the Group I crown.

“It’s a big motivation to face Rumson again, especially at home,” LeBlanc said. “We’re going to be ready for them.”

 

BOX SCORE

1-Manasquan 12, 5-Hopewell Valley 6

Hopewell Valley (10-10) 2 1 1 2 — 6

Manasquan (18-4)         2 5 1 4 — 12

GOALS - HV: Nolan Crognale 3, Nick DeGennaro, Tyler Krampf, Isaac Liebhoff; M: Canyon Birch 4. John Moran 2, James Pendergist 2, Pat Felstedt, Jarrett Birch, Paul Krueger, Joe Tonkovich.

ASSISTS - M: Pat Felstedt 2, John Moran 2.

SAVES - HV: Lyle Healey 7; M: Tom Pollock 5.

SHOTS: Manasquan, 28-16.

 

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.