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Manasquan head coach Sean Cunningham often speaks glowingly of his team’s defensemen, and rightfully so. It’s a deep group of sturdy, athletic, savvy and versatile poles that gives the Warriors a multitude of options against opposing offenses. The term ‘embarrassment of riches’ has been thrown around more than once over the past handful of years.

This season’s unit had a major say in what was another championship season on Broad Street. The Warriors won the Class B South division title, claimed their third straight NJSIAA South Group 1 state sectional title, reached their fifth straight Shore Conference Tournament championship game, and finished ranked No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and No. 12 in the NJ.com State Top 20. Manasquan’s defense allowed just 92 goals in 21 games, a paltry average of 4.4 per game.

The Warrior’s defensive treasure chest contained many invaluable objects, but the crown jewel of them all was senior defenseman Mike Farrell, the 2021 Shore Sports Network Defensive Player of the Year.

If Cunningham needed to shut down an opposing attackman, Farrell was the guy for the job. He was a hound on ball, cerebral off-ball, excellent in transition and could find the back of the net if presented with the opportunity. And he was also a leader on a team where he was one of just two returning full-time starters.

“I can’t overstate how important he was for us,” Cunningham said. “He’s able to see the field and his IQ is as good as it gets, and I think – and I hate using the term – but it’s his motor that helps set him apart. He has a pace of play and a level of intensity that you see with kids who are going to play Division 1 ball and who are going to be successful at the next level.”

Farrell is signed to play at the University of Richmond.

“He understands what it takes to compete at a high level. There’s one speed for him. He doesn’t stop and it’s relentless. He imposes his will on whoever he is covering.”

Farrell was stout all season long, but his signature game came during the NJSIAA South Group 1 championship game when Manasquan traveled north to face top-seeded Bernards. The Mountaineers entered the game with only one loss and an explosive offensive that featured five players with 30 or more goals and 50 or more points. Their leading scorer was senior attackman Zach Zukowsky, who is committed to Lafayette College. He entered the game with 53 goals and 69 assists for 122 points, which was second in New Jersey behind Wall’s Logan Peters. Those numbers didn’t budge after the Manasquan game.

Farrell held Zukowsky without a single point in Manasquan’s 12-6 victory that was even more dominant than the final score would indicate. It was a statement game, to say the least, as the Warriors captured their third straight sectional title.

“Mike is our No. 1 guy and we figure out his matchup and work back from there,” Cunningham said. “You go back to the Bernards game where we put him on a player who was top three in the state in scoring and he holds him off the stat sheet. There are very few guys in the entire state who can do that. We had an ability to pick a matchup and say, ‘ok, we can hold that guy to a season-low or to nothing at all’.”

Another signature moment was a play that shows up on the stat sheet only as a successful clear, but was much more than simply bringing the ball over the midfield line. In the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals against archrival Christian Brothers Academy, Farrell had a clear where he lowered his shoulder and trucked a CBA midfielder who was trying to slow him down just after he entered the offensive zone. The player fell head over heels and Farrell continued on into the box. The home crowd went wild.

Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com

“The nice part about all of our poles is they can handle and all of them have the green light,” Cunningham said. “With Michael, when it’s in transition, yeah, go run it. He has the acumen to stay down there and tie somebody up on the crease and run a pick play. He gives us a level of versatility that is pretty rare.”

Farrell finished the season with 42 caused turnovers and 61 ground balls plus two goals and three assists. His presence as a veteran leader, especially because of the canceled 2020 season, was immensely crucial, as well. Manasquan’s 2019 team is arguably the best in Shore Conference history and featured standouts like Canyon Birch, Jack Fabean, Robert Pendergist, Mike LaPoint, Mike Page, Ryan Anderson and more. Between that class and the 2020 seniors, nearly every starter or significant reserve was no longer in high school entering this season.

“More than most teams, the loss of 2020 hurt us in the sense of what went out the door from 2019 and that 2020 class being a strong half dozen who was going to carry us forward,” Cunningham said. “Michael and (UPenn commit and senior attackman Casey Mulligan) were our only full-time starters returning and it came down to them in terms of guys starting games who knew what it was to play every minute in a state championship-caliber game. Dylan LeBlanc and Ryan Bilello (both junior defensemen and Division 1 recruits), as talented as they are, had to jump in and start games essentially as sophomores. Michael was there to lead those guys and get everybody going.”

Since Cunningham took over as Manasquan’s head coach in 2015, the Warriors have had a steady stream of stud defensemen. It started with Kyle LeBlanc, who is now playing at Loyola. Then it was Fabean, who plays at Richmond, and standout LSM Mike Page (Syracuse). Last season it would have been Tommy Shaughnessy (Quinnipiac) and this season it was Farrell. They have their similarities and their differences but the common thread was how they meshed their individual talents within Manasquan’s system and flourished, both individually and as a unit.

“You talk about going from one year to the next and the hallmark of a program is consistency, whether on offense or defense, and we’ve been very fortunate to have a slew of really talented defensemen since I’ve been here,” Cunningham said. “They all bought into the team defensive concept. It’s not just having all these super-talented players and rolling the balls out, there’s a lot of thought that goes into what we do defensively and terminology they need to be on top of, and it starts with the alpha back there. They need to take care of their personal matchup but it’s also about what they are doing off-ball. About 90 percent of the time they’re off ball making sure guys are in their spots, communicating with the goalie, and making sure we keep matchup integrity.”

No matter the situation, Mike Farrell was there to give Manasquan exactly what it needed.

 

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