SSN Boys Lacrosse Player of the Year: Manasquan’s Canyon Birch
From the first game of the season, Manasquan junior Canyon Birch set a scoring pace never before seen from a Shore Conference lacrosse player, and the end result was a historic season that re-wrote the conference record book. So, as we wrap up the 2018 season we honor Birch as the obvious recipient of this year’s Shore Sports Network Boys Lacrosse Player of the Year award.
Use whichever adjectives you’d like to describe Birch’s season numbers and don’t worry about going over the top. The term great is used far too often for what the word is supposed to stand for, but Birch’s unbelievable season was a stint of true greatness.
In a season for the ages, Birch obliterated the conference single-season records for goals and points by scoring 123 goals and adding 52 assists for 175 points to lead Manasquan to the Shore Conference Tournament championship and the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 1 sectional title. He led the state in both goals and points, finishing second all-time in goals to A.L. Johnson’s Matt Poskay, who had 129 goals in 2001, while setting a new state single-season record with his 175 points. Birch shattered the Shore Conference single-season record of 93 goals during the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and later blew past the previous record of 136 points, both of which were previously held by Southern’s Dylan Jinks.
“At the end of every season I reflect about what I can do better and set goals for next season,” Birch said. “After we lost last year in the sectional final I wrote down some notes on what I wanted to do (this year). One goal was to score 140 points along with winning the SCT, a sectional title, a group title and going to the T.O.C. I really focused on that and worked harder.”
“It’s a thing where you look at his stats and the first game of the season we’re four to five middies short, missing some bodies, and we weren’t sure what we were going to be as a team,” said Manasquan head coach Sean Cunningham. “We knew we had a potential test in the first game going down to Lacey and Canyon goes out and drops 10 goals and two assists. That’s kind of the way things went all year and he didn’t even play the second half in most of our games; he didn’t even play after the first quarter in a lot of our games. It really puts his feat in perspective.”
Birch scored early and often, putting in 10 goals and two assists in the season-opener against Lacey on his way to opening the season with 20 goals and 35 points in his first three games. He did not play a full game until Manasquan’s fifth game of the season when he scored six goals against an always-tough Bridgewater-Raritan team, and by game No. 7 against Wall, Birch had recorded his 200th career goal and reached 50 goals on the season.
His torrid pace did not slow down even when the Warriors suffered their first loss of the season, a 15-10 setback to Lawrenceville Prep. Manasquan was off its game that day but the offense still scored in double digits with Birch registering five goals and one assist. Two days later, however, Birch was stifled in a surprising moment that turned out to be the turning point of Manasquan’s season.
In a marquee regular-season game against Christian Brothers Academy that pitted the top two teams in the Shore, the Colts locked off Birch and held him to just one goal and one assist. CBA won, 6-4, to knock the Warriors from their perch atop the conference.
The Warriors regrouped to win games against Point Boro, Freehold Township and Jackson Liberty and Birch got back to his high-scoring ways with 12 goals and 10 assists in those three games. As the SCT got underway, Manasquan began to hit its stride. The Warriors crushed Lacey, 21-4, in the first round before dispatching of Freehold Township, 16-2, in the quarterfinals. The semifinals saw another dominant effort as Manasquan shut out Southern, 12-0, to reach the championship game. Birch scored 19 goals and added six assists in those first three SCT games, including nine goals vs. Freehold Township and six against Southern to pass Jinks as the single-season, goal-scoring leader.
The opponent Manasquan was hoping to see again was indeed waiting in the championship game, and in the rematch with CBA it was all Warriors. Birch scored twice and dished out three assists to reach 100 goals on the season as Manasquan took down CBA, 11-3, to repeat as SCT champions and regain the No. 1 ranking in the Shore.
“Beating CBA for the SCT title and getting redemption on the team we lost to,” Birch said. “That was the best.”
From there, Manasquan embarked on its next goal: a sectional title. The Warriors won the South Jersey Group 2 title in 2016 but lost to Rumson-Fair Haven in a thrilling 2017 final, and that narrow defeat was one of the driving forces for Birch in the offseason.
The Warriors opened the state tournament with a 21-2 win over New Egypt as Birch sank 11 goals and added three assists. He then scored three goals with one assist in a 12-10 win over a physical Glen Ridge team and scored twice in an 8-4 win over Bernards to send Manasquan to its third straight sectional final. On the home turf of Vic Kubu Warrior Field, Birch put on a show with six goals and five assists as Manasquan defeated Madison, 15-8, to capture the South Jersey Group 1 sectional championship.
Perhaps his signature goal of the season came late in the first half with Manasquan trying to extend its lead after a Madison rally. Off a timeout, Birch came out from X initially looking to pass before rolling back and scoring with a perfect left-handed shot to give the Warriors an 8-5 halftime lead. The play showcased the skill, smarts and unrivaled shooting ability of Birch in one fantastic sequence.
“Watching him every day in practice I’ve become kind of desensitized to some of the things he pulls off,” Cunningham said. “Physically, he’s a lot to handle and from a skills perspective he puts a lot of time into it and really works at it. And his lacrosse IQ is incredible. He sees the field exceptionally well and can diagnose where his teammates are and where he wants to go, and that helps make him more dangerous. He’s not just out there shooting all day, he also put up almost 60 assists.”
It is the combination of skill, tenacity and savvy which have turned Birch into an offensive juggernaut, and those are certainly a product of his preparation and motivation.
“In the offseason, I made it a goal of mine to shoot 700 shots a week – 100 a day – and if I couldn’t get to it I’d double up the next day,” Birch said. “That was the biggest thing, staying loyal to my goals and trusting my teammates and my family. Losing in the sectional final last year, it really hurt. I thought we were going to be the best team in the state and taking a loss like that, having a shot go off the pipe at the last second, really motivated me to not let it happen again.”
Birch will enter his senior season with 274 goals and 115 assists, already at 389 points for his career. He’s currently tied with Jinks for the most goals in conference history and will likely become the Shore’s most prolific scorer on the next shot he attempts. He’s also just 43 points away from surpassing the Shore Conference record of 431 points set by CBA’s Tommy Duerr. The state records for career goals and points are both held by Poskay at 362 and 468, respectively, and Birch has a great chance to break those marks, as well.
“I definitely want my last year to be my best year,” Birch said. “Since day one, I always thought about those records and before high school I researched them and focused on trying to beat them. Coming six goals short this year, it would have been nice to have gotten it but it will help me work harder next year. It’s motivation and I like the challenge.”
Individual records will only be a portion of what drives Birch next season. Manasquan’s season came to an abrupt end with a 16-7 loss to Mountain Lakes in the NJSIAA Group 1 final, denying the Warriors their first state title. With all but four players from this year’s team returning next season, the goal will be to get back to a state championship game and earn redemption.
“100 percent, and just playing a team of that caliber is going to help us,” Birch said. “Just like the sectional final last year did, this is going to motivate us. The 2019 group has been playing together since fourth great and we really want to cement our legacy and try to be on top next year.”
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.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.