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BARNEGAT — When Barnegat walked off the field after the third quarter of its crucial Shore Conference Class A South game against Lacey on Wednesday it was a team barely holding it together.

The Bengals had built a two-goal halftime lead on the Lions, only to see it wiped away during a quarter in which little went right for the host squad. The Bengals’ offense was out of sync, and frustration was mounting. The situation only became more dire when Dan Cannon gave Lacey the lead early in the fourth quarter. If Barnegat was going to keep its undefeated record and division title hopes intact, it had to find its game and do it fast.

“I know they don’t have quit in them,” said Barnegat head coach Ryan Dalon. “Sometimes they do get frustrated and you can see it, but they usually fight through it. When we get momentum going in our direction we know how to use it.”

Trailing by one midway through the final period, the Bengals drew even on a goal by junior attackman Matt Manno and then pulled in front when senior Ethan Tonneson threaded a gorgeous pass to sophomore attackman Ryan Reynolds with 5:23 left. Senior Matt Grobelny made some clutch saves over the final five minutes and Barnegat held on to edge Lacey, 7-6, in Wednesday’s Class A South showdown.

“Everyone was saying we hadn’t played that great of teams,” said senior defenseman Greg Moran. “We knew Lacey was a big challenge for us, and to win was a big stepping stone to show we are for real.”

“In the third quarter we kind of fell apart,” Tonneson said. “(To come back) showed how much heart we have.”

Tonneson dished out four assists in the game and now has a team-best 29. Reynolds and junior midfielder Ricky Gerena each scored twice for Barnegat (8-0, 5-0) while senior Anthony Hause, sophomore J.J. McKenna and Manno also found the back of the net. Grobelny finished with 14 saves, including five in the fourth quarter. Seniors Dan Cannon and Joey Long each scored twice for Lacey (9-2, 6-1) with goalie Kyle Fisher making 12 saves.

Barnegat’s victory keeps it in line with defending A South champion Southern atop the division standings. After passing a major test against Lacey, if they can defeat Jackson Liberty and Toms River North in the next six days, the Bengals will host Southern on May 1 with an opportunity to claim sole possession of first place.

Wednesday’s contest was tight from the start, and remained that way throughout. Barnegat’s two-goal lead at halftime was the largest advantage either team had all game. Lacey got on the board a mere 37 seconds into the game when Cannon found Long right in front of the net with a great pass for a tap-in goal. Barnegat answered when Gerena scored unassisted off an isolation drive from the top of the box at 10:27, and took a 2-1 lead when Tonneson steered a pass from the right side into the box where McKenna corralled it and zipped a shot past Fisher at 6:57.

Long then tied the game at 4:22 with a great individual effort, curling around the crease and diving through a defender to beat Grobelny and knot the score at two. With 3:03 left in the opening quarter, Tonneson sent a pass to the goal mouth that Reynolds caught and deposited into the net to give Barnegat a 3-2 lead after the first quarter.

Cannon tied the score at three at 8:28 of the second quarter when he dodged a defender high in the box and blasted a left-handed shot past Grobelny. Barnegat re-gained the lead just over two minutes later when Gerena cut in from the left corner behind the net and sank his second goal of the game. Another great pass from Tonneson pushed the Bengals’ lead to 5-3, as he found Hause with a pass across the box and the senior finished the play at 3:23, enabling Barnegat to enter halftime with a two-goal advantage.

Any momentum Barnegat had built over the first 24 minutes dissipated after halftime, however. Lacey won all three third-quarter face-offs, and the advantage in possession helped the Lions tie the game, 5-5. They cut the deficit to one at 9:16 of the third quarter when junior defenseman James Peaney engineered a successful clear and led the rush into the offensive end. He found Pat Quinn in stride, and the senior scored to made it 5-4.

With 4:20 to go in the quarter, sophomore Ryan Mahon scored from point-blank range to tie the game at five. The damage could have been worse if not for the play of Grobelny and defensemen Ryan Parker, Hunter Narozniak and Moran. Grobelny made five saves in the quarter to help offset a period in which unforced errors and low-percentage shots plagued the Bengals.

Lacey took its first lead since going up 1-0 when Cannon drove to his left and unleashed another bomb that rippled the twine behind Grobelny, putting the Lions up 6-5 just 43 seconds into the fourth quarter. Barnegat looked like a team ready to fold, but the Bengals were able to reverse their fortune over the game’s final six and a half minutes.

Moran started the breakout on Barnegat’s game-tying goal when he picked up a ground ball in his own end. The ball eventually came to Reynolds, who then quickly dished to Manno for a goal that made it 6-6 with 6:28 left. The game-winning goal came off another great clear, this one by McKenna. The sophomore ran the ball across the midfield line and out-raced Cannon down the right sideline before dishing to Tonneson, who was camped out behind and to the right of the goal. Tonneson quickly flipped a pass to a wide-open Reynolds, who scored for the 7-6 lead.

“J.J. is a player that’s on the rise,” Dalon said. “He plays a lot of lacrosse so he understands the game very well. He doesn’t panic when he has the ball on his stick.”

“Having Ethan Tonneson out there, his vision is so key,” Dalon added. “He’s my offensive field general out there. He calms everything down and gets the offense in sync. When he has the ball on his stick I feel comfortable he’s going to make the right decision all the time.”

For Lacey, Wednesday’s loss marked its first defeat since dropping a 10-8 game to Marlboro on April 5. The Lions have already eclipsed their win total from last season (8-10) when they qualified for the NJSIAA and Shore Conference Tournaments for the first time. With a 9-2 record already this season, they’re well on their way to a return to each.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” said Lacey head coach Shane Allen. “We had an opportunity to see them earlier in the week, and we knew their lineup was strong top to bottom. We had to play mistake-free lacrosse, and we didn’t do that today.”

For a team that entered the season having graduated a 50-goal scorer, plus being short on midfielders, offense was a question mark heading into the season. But with Tonneson’s passing and a balanced set of finishers that includes six players with at least 10 goals, the Bengals’ offense hasn’t missed a beat. Add that to a solid defense in front of a stingy goalie and it’s easy to see why Barnegat has enjoyed a breakout year.

And if all continues to go right, they’ll be playing for a division title one week from now.

“Every year we come in as underdogs,” Tonneson said. “The whole Shore or A South doesn’t see us as competition, but this year we’re showing everyone we’re coming for it.”


Box Score

Barnegat 7, Lacey 6

Lacey (9-2, 6-1)      2 1 2 1 - 6

Barnegat (8-0, 5-0) 3 2 0 2 - 7


GOALS — L: Dan Cannon 2, Joey Long 2, Pat Quinn, Ryan Mahon; B: Ryan Reynolds 2, Ricky Gerena 2, J.J. McKenna, Anthony Hause, Matt Manno.

ASSISTS — L: Dan Cannon, James Peaney; B: Ethan Tonneson 4, Ryan Reynolds.

SAVES — L: Kyle Fisher 12; B: Matt Grobelny 14.

SHOTS — Tied 29-29.