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SOMERVILLE — The gap is closing, that much was proven on Wednesday night at Somerville High School. But the end of a team’s season can only be lined with so much silver.

“Every loss stings, and in the end it’s the same feeling every time,” said Southern junior attackman Dylan Jinks after the Rams fell to Westfield, 10-6, in the NJSIAA Group IV championship game.

“I love this game and I never want to stop playing it,” Jinks said. “And it stinks that our 2014 season is now over.”

The Rams fell in an early 3-0 hole against the Blue Devils, and although they fought back to make it a one-goal game in the first half and trimmed a five-goal deficit to two early in the fourth quarter, Westfield just had a little more. The Union County school controlled possession for most of the game, limiting Southern’s explosive offense to a fraction of its normal possessions to capture its third state title and first since 1987.

Senior attackman Brendan Mullen and junior midfielder Chris Smith each scored twice for Southern (20-3), while Jinks scored once and also dished out a pair of assists. Junior Brendan Lefanto made eight saves in goal.

Junior middie Pat Aslanian led Westfield (12-9) with four goals and junior attackman Luke Prybylski registered three goals and two assists. Senior FOGO Jack Kessler played a huge factor in Westfield’s time of possession by going 12-of-17 on draws against the Shore Conference’s top face-off man, Southern senior Billy Dowd.

Southern junior attackman Dylan Jinks had a goal and two assists in a 10-6 loss to Westfield in the NJSIAA Group IV final. Jinks scored a Shore Conference-record 93 goals this season.

At the end of the day, Southern lost in the Group IV title game for the second year in a row, which means its ultimate, yet still-lofty, goal remains incomplete. The Rams’ battle is two-fold, however. The reality is that the Shore Conference has a lot of catching up to do to be consistently on par with the teams in the northern part of the state. But every year the gap gets a little shorter, and Southern’s performance on Wednesday illustrated that.

Westfield, which played arguably the state’s most difficult schedule, was never in complete control against Southern. Its 8-3 lead in the second half quickly became 8-6, and the Blue Devils needed those extra possessions late in the game to put away the Rams.

“I don’t care who you play, a team that is used to winning coming in with a 20-2 record, that has a bunch of guys with a lot of goals, that doesn’t happen by accident,” said Westfield head coach Patrick Tuohy. “Lacrosse is spreading throughout this state, and it’s really flourishing down there like it has been up here.

“It’s only a matter of time before these games are even calls, and that’s what we’re looking forward to. At the end of the day, it’s all about the spread of this great sport we love.”

“We understand there’s a gap between North Jersey and South Jersey,” said Southern head coach John Pampalone. “But that gap is closing. We wanted to come up here and compete and fight for every inch of turf and make them play a lacrosse game, and we accomplished that today.”

That was the approach Southern brought into its second straight Group IV title game. The Rams felt plenty of pressure in the South Jersey Group IV tournament where they were the No. 1 seed and defending champion. The sectional title game, at home against a Lenape team that had defeated them in the first game of the season, was a big one.

The expectation for Southern’s program is to take another step each year. A loss to Lenape in the sectional final or a blowout loss to Westfield would’ve been a step in reverse, and the Rams knew that. They didn’t win on Wednesday, but there’s no question the program remained on the winning track.

“The whole focus throughout was to come out there and compete and show what South Jersey is, and we’re not that far off from North Jersey,” Jinks said. “Everyone thinks the gap is much bigger than it really is. As you saw, we battled them every second. We made a couple of bad mistakes on our part, and if not, it’s a completely different game.”

“We fought pretty hard and tried to never give them an inch,” Mullen said. “We thought we had them at the end scoring two at a time, but they came back and we couldn’t get the ball back. It’s a tough loss, but we hung in there. I thought it was a good loss because we all played our hearts out.”

Westfield jumped out to a 3-0 first-quarter lead on goals by Pat Aslanian, Prybylski and Chris Aslanian in a span of 4:48. Southern, which was not called for a penalty the entire game as opposed to Westfield’s five flags, closed to within 3-2 by taking advantage of consecutive penalties.

Smith made it 3-1 when he took a behind-the-net pass from Mullen and bounced a shot from near the top of the box at 2:18. Smith then scored his second extra-man opportunity goal of the quarter when Jinks fed him from behind the net, and his shot from the left side of the box beat Alex D’Amato with 34 seconds remaining in the opening quarter. Prybylski gave Westfield the momentum back heading into the second, however, with an unassisted goal with 8.2 seconds to go.

“Being down 3-0 right off the bat hurt, but once we cut it to 3-2 we realized they’re not that much better than us,” Jinks said. “Yes, they’re a good team, but we’re not far behind them.”

Pat Aslanian put Westfield up 5-2 with an unassisted tally at 9:48, but Mullen got it back at 3:12 by driving hard to the net and beating D’Amato to cut the deficit to 5-3. As it did all game, Westfield responded almost immediately to keep Southern at bay. Prybylski’s goal with 1:40 left in the half gave the Blue Devils a 6-3 advantage at the intermission.

Southern junior goalie Brendan Lefanto is one of nine returning starters the Rams will have next season as they chase the program's first group title.

The lead for Westfield stretched to 8-3 just 2:28 into the second half on goals by James Bohringer and Pat Aslanian. If Southern was going to roll over and let Westfield coast to a state title, this would have been the time. Instead, Jinks scored his first of the game with 1:23 left in the quarter to make it 8-4 and set the Rams up for a three-goal run that thrust them right back into the game.

The Rams had an EMO carry over into the fourth quarter, and made Westfield pay when Mullen found space at the crease and converted after taking a pass from Jinks to make it 8-5 just 16 seconds in. Ninety-three seconds later, junior midfielder Shawn McManus drove to the net and bounced a shot past Toby Burgdorf to pull Southern to within 8-6 with 10:11 left in the game. This is where the experience of playing the state’s best shone through for Westfield. Pat Decker scored less than a minute later to give Westfield back its three-goal lead, and Pat Aslanian put the finishing touches on the Blue Devils’ first state title in 17 years with a goal at 4:08.

A stellar ride and tremendous face-off work by Kessler were the difference-makers in a game that was 7-6 once Southern settled down after falling behind 3-0. Westfield had the right gameplan against Southern, and executed it to near perfection. Southern’s electric offense just didn’t have the ball enough.

“They rode as hard as they could and gained four or five extra possessions out of it,” Jinks said. “There was that one segment where we couldn’t get the ball out of the zone. The ride absolutely hurt us. Our clear was a little slow to get going, and even thought we started picking it up in the second half and got more possessions out of it, the reach was too far.”

“Their ride was tremendous today and they gave us problems clearing the ball,” Pampalone said. “When you give great teams extra possessions they’re usually going to score.”

Westfield moves onto the Tournament of Champions, where it will play Group I champion Mountain Lakes in the first round.

Southern, meanwhile, starts the process of regrouping and getting ready for another run next season. The Rams will graduate eight seniors from this year’s squad that won a program record 20 games and secured back-to-back Shore Conference Class A South and South Jersey Group IV titles. Among those eight however, only four saw significant playing time, and only Mullen and Dowd were starters.

Southern’s standout junior class will get another shot at making history next season. Jinks, who finished the season with what is believed to be a Shore Conference-record 93 goals along with 44 assists for 137 points, anchors a group of returners that also includes Lefanto, 50-goal scorer McManus, 30-goal scorer Smith and top defenseman Mike Adragna.

“I remember freshman year we went out against Bridgewater-Raritan and they absolutely destroyed us,” Mullen said. “This year we’re up here hanging with the best teams, and I think next year will be the year they win it.”

“We’re going to come out next year and go as hard as we can,” Jinks said. “Hopefully we’ll make it back here and it’ll be different.”


Box Score

Westfield 10, Southern 6

Southern (20-3) 2 1 1 2 - 6

Westfield (12-9) 4 2 2 2 - 10

GOALS - S: Brendan Mullen 2, Chris Smith 2, Dylan Jinks, Shawn McManus; W: Pat Aslanian 4, Luke Prybylski 3, Chris Aslanian, James Bohringer, Pat Decker.

ASSISTS - S: Dylan Jinks 2, Brendan Mullen 1; W: Luke Prybylski 2.

SAVES - S: Brendan Lefanto 8; W: Alex D'Amato 2, Toby Burgdorf 5.

SHOTS: Westfield, 31-20.