Shore Sports Network 2016 Boys Lacrosse Coach of the Year: Manasquan’s Sean Cunningham
From the second he took over as Manasquan’s head coach prior to the 2015 season, Sean Cunningham knew he had a program ready to take a major jump. HIs job was to corral the talent and push them to previously unreached heights. So far he’s done a pretty darn good job of that.
Manasquan made program history in 2016 by capturing the NJSIAA South Group II sectional championship and reaching the Group II title game. The Warriors finished 19-5, won the Class B South division title and reached the Shore Conference Tournament final for the first time since 2005. Manasquan accomplished all of this with just a handful of seniors, arriving to the party earlier than some had anticipated
A rising star as a coach, Cunningham is the 2016 Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year.
Manasquan returned most of its starters from the 2015 season when it went 15-4 and reached the semifinals of the Shore Conference Tournament, so the Warriors’ success this season was not unexpected. A deep and talented junior class was joined by a phenomenal group of freshman that ended up making a huge impact. It all added up to the most successful season in the history of the Shore Conference’s oldest program.
“At this juncture Rumson has gotten to that point where they are state-recognized and I think we’re inching our way there,” Cunningham said.
When the Warriors opened the season with a 16-5 win over a solid Freehold Township team, it was evident they were going to be a championship contender. Manasquan rattled off seven straight wins to begin the year before losing consecutive games to state powers Moorestown and Summit. Later in the season Manasquan would lose to Ridge, another established power from Somerset County. That was by design, however. Cunningham knew he had to schedule games against some of the best teams in New Jersey to prepare his team for the state playoffs.
“We got after it this year,” Cunningham said. “We went toe-to-toe with Moorestown, got handled by Summit and Ridge definitely outplayed us, but those were good experiences. Now the coaches know on the state level we as a program aren’t afraid to step up and play anybody.”
Manasquan would go on to reach the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals with two convincing wins - a 23-8 victory over Lacey and a 16-3 win over rival Wall. In the semifinals the Warriors met undefeated Southern, the defending SCT champs who beat them in last season’s SCT semifinals. This time Manasquan got the better of the Rams with a 12-8 victory. In the championship game it was the matchup everyone wanted to seed: No. 1 Rumson-Fair Haven vs. No. 2 Manasquan.
Rumson edged Manasquan, 8-5, to win its sixth SCT title and deny the Warriors their first conference championship, but Manasquan knew revenge could be attained. Both teams were aligned in the South Group II section for the NJSIAA Tournament, and with Manasquan seeded first by a slim margin the Warriors would get that chance on their home field.
Their playoff run began with a 16-3 win over Lawrence and continued with a 15-7 win over Somerville to put them into the semifinals for the first time. It was there they defeated Hopewell Valley, 12-6, to reach the sectional final and set up a rematch with Rumson with a title on the line.
The adjustments Cunningham and his staff made from the first game paid off as Manasquan led the entire way en route to an 8-4 victory that secured the program’s first sectional title. The Warriors’ defense was lights out, and the offense cracked a Rumson defense that had allowed just three goals the entire postseason.
Manasquan’s run ended in the Group II final via a 4-2 loss to Chatham, but the Warriors proved they belonged by hanging with a top-10 team in New Jersey. Manasquan made a name for itself on the state level this season and should be back for more in 2017.
A standout junior class led by 70-goal scoring attackman Jarrett Birch and shut-down defenseman Kyle LeBlanc and including attackman Joe Tonkovich, midfielders Pat Felstedt, Devan Carroll and John Moran, defensemen Jack Mallett, Chip Sarnasi and Tom Meyer and goalie Tom Pollock will lead Manasquan next season. Freshman attackman Canyon Birch had 61 goals and freshman midfielder James Pendergist tallied 27 goals. Freshman defenseman Jack Fabean was an important starter and freshman goalie Mike Lapoint was dynamite in a 40/60 split with Pollock during the regular season. Those four already play beyond their years and should be even better in 2017.
“We’re not light years away and that’s a credit to what this program has done over the last few years, getting the youth ready to go, what Nick Schmidt has done in the past and guys like that who really put forth the effort to make us better as a program,” Cunningham said. “You look at us last year and we were still a little bit off. We were very young but returned a lot of guys, and we still do return a lot of guys. We hope to be back in this position next year.”