Boys Lacrosse: Mountain Lakes Thwarts Manasquan in Group 1 Final for Third Straight Season
HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP – Once again, Manasquan’s boys lacrosse team proved it can compete with the best New Jersey has to offer But once again, the Warriors battled hard only to fall just short of a state championship.
Manasquan jumped out to an early lead during Wednesday’s NJSIAA Group 1 state final at Hopewell Valley Central High School and held a one-goal advantage at halftime, but Mountain Lakes controlled the second half for a 7-5 victory that denied Manasquan in the Group 1 title game for the third straight season.
Down 4-3 at halftime, Mountain Lakes scored all three goals of the third quarter and another in the fourth while holding Manasquan to one second-half goal to claim their third straight Group 1 crown and 10th overall group championship since 2004.
“Manasquan is extremely well-coached and they did an awesome job all night with their effort level and their discipline, their talent,” said Mountain Lakes head coach Tim Flynn. “They pushed us extremely well. We knew we were going to be up against it. They came out and began to take the game away from us and our seniors got in the huddle and halftime and said we’re not done yet and they came out and made it happen.”
“Our guys are tough as can be and they gave everything they had,” said Manasquan head coach Sean Cunningham. “They’re a tremendous group and their legacy is intact as a really good team. I couldn’t be more proud of these boys.”
Goals by senior attackmen Owen McCusker and Casey Mulligan and sophomore midfielder Blake Gorski staked Manasquan (17-4) to a 3-1 lead midway through the first quarter before Mountain Lakes used a goal by Reid Tietjen late in the period to make it 3-2. The Lakers then got a goal by Cade Schuckman at 8:15 of the second quarter to tie the score 3-3.
In the final minute of the first half, Manasquan junior goalie Carter Groezinger made a key stop on a man-down situation and the Warriors turned it the other way where Mulligan scored with 11 seconds on the clock, giving Manasquan a 4-3 halftime lead.
Mountain Lakes found the equalizer early in the third quarter when the Lakers forced a turnover with a strong ride, Tietjen collected a ground ball off a mad scramble in front, and then set up Matt McCrink for the tying goal. It was the spark the Lakers need to get going.
“Ground balls win games and championships, and Manasquan is an awesome ground ball team,” Flynn said. “We were able to get some at some key points and obviously that was a big one. We had to come out and do something after halftime and the kids made it happen.”
Schuckman then scored at 9:19 to give Lakes a 5-4 lead, its first of the game, and then completed his hat trick with 35 seconds left in the third quarter off a pass from Riley Albergts for the eventual game-winning goal.
“You want to find that first goal of the second half instead of giving up that little two-goal spurt and I think that’s the difference right there,” Cunningham said.
Manasquan pulled to within 6-5 with 5:10 left when senior midfielder Mike Farinacci threaded a perfect pass to the crease that junior midfielder Robert Pendergist deposited into the net, but the Lakers (17-1) regained their two-goal advantage when Tietjen scored off an assist from Albergts with 2:53 on the clock.
Mountain Lakes senior goalie Shane Nachshen was outstanding in making nine saves, many of which robbed Manasquan on high-quality chances.
Manasquan junior face-off specialist Max Pauwels was excellent in winning 12 of 16 face-offs including winning 11 in a row between the 8:01 mark of the first quarter and the opening draw of the fourth quarter. Groezinger made 10 saves and produced three man-down stops.
While Manasquan had plenty of possessions thanks to Pauwels’ excellent work at face-off X, Manasquan struggled to put together the same quality possessions it did during the first half. Much of that can be attributed that Mountain Lakes’ defense, but the Warriors also turned the ball over far too often, especially with unforced errors on dropped passes or overthrows. They added up and gave Mountain Lakes one too many opportunities in a close game.
“It’s a senior-oriented group led by Shane Nachshen in the cage, who made some unbelievable saves all night long,” Flynn said. “The leadership came through right there. They were settled into what we were doing and they did a great job limiting a very, very good team to some outside looks. (Manasquan) got one coming around the cage – they test you – but I think that senior group on defense did an awesome job.”
“You can’t give them any free possessions,” Cunningham said. “But credit to them, they rode aggressively and showed something different and came out firing. It’s unfortunate that things didn’t break our way but, again, that’s why sports are great, you get to teach some real hard life lessons. I’m still learning them.”
It also didn’t help that Manasquan had several of its top players battling through injuries during the state tournament. Sophomore attackman Matt Porazzo was injured in the sectional final win over Bernards and did not play Wednesday and the Warriors were also without sophomore midfielder James Farinacci. They moved Mike Farinacci up to attack, had Pendergist there at some points, and even made some defensive changes by giving a short stick to senior long-stick midfielder Bryce Ridge in order to get their best six defenders on the field at all times.
“Casey and Robert are playing at probably 75% at best and they’re tough as can be,” Cunningham said. “All our guys are pretty beat up – not that anybody else isn’t, that’s the name of the game when you get this deep. But for us to lose a player like Matt Porazzo who’s bringing 50-plus points to the table and during the sectional run to lose a kid like James Farinacci who gives us a lot of versatility, we had to find a way to cover that.”
“We were down to two real attackmen, slotting guys up top, putting a shorty in Bryce’s hands, doing anything and everything we can do and they sold out and left it all out there today. It would have been really easy for this group to pack it in after last Monday (an 11-4 loss to Rumson in the SCT final) and they didn’t do that. We talked about what they wanted their legacy to be and said don’t let that game beat you twice. They found something extra in that sectional run and I thought they were great tonight.”
Ridge and senior Chris Farinacci had been splitting runs at LSM, but against Lakes, Cunningham wanted defensemen Mike Farrell, Dylan LeBlanc and Ryan Bilello out there along with Farinacci and Ridge at the same time. That meant putting the short stick in Ridge’s hands and having him match up with several of the Lakers' standout middies.
“Watching them on film, I said let’s use our strongest and put them all out there and give this kid a short stick because he can do it really well,” Cunningham said. “The kid is tremendous and, in my opinion, is probably the most underrated player in the state of New Jersey. He just did so much for us this year and I don’t think he got any due credit.”
Manasquan’s lacrosse program is obviously in a great place having won three straight sectional titles, including four in the last five years, plus three Shore Conference Tournament titles in the last four years. But reaching the next milestone has so far eluded them. For the last three years, it’s been one of the state’s flagship programs led by a legendary coach standing in their way, underscoring the difficulty of winning a New Jersey lacrosse state championship.
“It’s not like this is a mystery box where we opened it and Lakes popped out instead of somebody you’d rather see,” Cunningham said. “We know who’s at the end of the line every year, and they are what they are for a reason. They’re tough as nails, they have talent 1 through however many guys are on that sideline and they’re as well-coached as anybody, probably the best-coached team. We have a ton of respect for them and rightfully so. You just have to live with this, but I don’t think these kids are going to regret it. They left it all out there and just came up a little short.”
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