Clutch Goal by Dax Kukan, Late Save by Colin Fay Helps No. 6 Howell Avoid Upset Bid by No. 10 Manalapan on Opening Day
MANALAPAN -- It took exactly one day to produce the first dramatic finish of the 2022 Shore Conference boys lacrosse season.
Senior midfielder Dax Kukan scored an unassisted goal with 3:45 left in regulation and senior goalie Colin Fay made a man-down save with five seconds on the clock as Howell, ranked No. 6 in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10, held on for a thrilling 10-9 Shore Conference Class A North victory over No. 10 Manalapan during Opening Day on Wednesday afternoon at the Manalapan Rec Center.
The host Braves rallied from a pair of three-goal deficits in the second half to eventually tie the game 9-9 with just under five minutes left. Junior attackman Jack Marich had given Howell a 9-6 advantage with an extra-man opportunity goal off a setup from senior attackman Vin Burns with 9:16 remaining before Manalapan began its comeback.
Manalapan sophomore midfielder Grant Carle scored an unassisted goal on a play in which his stick shaft snapped on the shot, pulling the Braves to within 9-7 with 7:22 left. Then it was sophomore midfielder Marc Stefanelli scoring a pair of goals in a span of 1:12, the second of which came with 4:43 on the clock and knotted the score 9-9.
Howell had an immediate answer, however, when Kukan was able to get off a bounce shot after absorbing a big body check just north of the crease, and when the shot found the back of the net it put the Rebels back on top, 10-9, with 3:45 remaining in the game.
Howell then moved to run out the clock and nearly did so until Manalapan corralled a ground ball in its own end with about 30 seconds to go. During the clear attempt, Howell was called for a push with possession penalty that gave Manalapan an EMO with 13 seconds left. Stefanelli took the ball off the restart at the top of the box and fed a pass to Carle on the left wing. He unleashed a shot that bounced just in front of Fay, but the senior netminder tracked the ball well, went down to his knees, and made his 12th and final save of the afternoon to preserve a white-knuckle victory for the Rebels.
"We drill a lot of end-of-game situations in practice," said Fay, who was a Third Team All-Shore selection last season and is committed to Division 2 Belmont Abbey. 'The penalty flag gets thrown with 13 seconds left and you know they're going to want to shoot with some time left and not a last-second shot. We had our man-down set up before they even got in and I'm yelling 'Sticks up! Sticks up!' to make sure we get in passing lanes, shooting lanes. I was keeping my eye on the ball and making sure I could see it all the way through."
"We've been hard on Colin in the preseason because we're trying to get him to be demanding of the guys in front of him," said Howell head coach Anthony Bonjavanni. "He'll be the first to tell you there were one or two he probably could have had today but that's the level we hold him to, we think he can save everything. But at the end of the game those one or two that really mattered, he saved."
Senior midfielder Doug MacKenzie led Howell with four goals while junior attackman Nate Lorenzo had two goals and one assist and Marich scored twice. Kukan and senior midfielder Tyler Burns each scored once and Vin Burns had some nice setups to finish with four assists. Fay had 12 saves and senior Glenn Giordano battled to a 8-for-18 afternoon at the face-off X.
Stefanelli had four goals to lead Manalapan and Carle scored three times while also going 12-for-16 on face-offs. Senior midfielder Frankie D'Amore and sophomore attackman Anthony Macchio each scored once and senior goalie Alex Kaplan made six saves.
It was a back and forth first half with Howell holding a slim lead throughout the first two quarters. MacKenzie started the scoring with an unassisted goal at 8:24 and Carle answered at 6:44 to tie the score 1-1. Howell went up 2-1 when Lorenzo's shot just trickled past Kaplan after the goalie got a piece of the shot, but Manalapan again tied the score when Macchio dodged to his left and beat Fay less than a minute later.
Marich's first goal put Howell in the lead again before Stefanelli scored a tremendous goal in which he picked up a ground ball just outside the crease and, with his back to the goal, flipped a no-look underhanded shot into the net to tie the score at three. Howell, however, had a response when MacKenzie used his left hand to bounce a shot in with just 5.8 seconds left in the first quarter.
The pace slowed a bit in the second quarter as MacKenzie and D'Amore traded goals to make the score 5-4 Howell at halftime.
Manalapan head coach Nick Filippone threw a surprise wrinkle in to start the game as the Braves' defense came out playing a zone. Howell made its adjustments and came out firing in the third quarter to score two quick goals and take a 7-4 lead. Lorenzo scored his second off a pass from Vin Burns at 9:46 and 44 seconds later MacKenzie took a pass from Vin Burns and found twine to give the Rebels a three-goal cushion.
Howell had a chance to break the game open over the next seven minutes but some near-misses and a big save by Kaplan mixed in kept Manalapan's deficit at 7-4. Then, with 1:50 to go in the third quarter, Carle scored his second of the game to trim Howell's lead to 7-5 entering the fourth quarter.
Just 20 seconds into the final quarter, Stefanelli took a pass from D'Amore and rifled it into the net to pull the Braves within a goal. Howell responded yet again on an unassisted goal by Tyler Burns and then, on their first EMO of the game, Marich's man-up tally gave the Rebels a 9-6 edge with 9:16 to play. That set up the late-game drama as Howell avoided an upset bid from the upstart Braves.
The takeaway for Howell was clear: be happy with the victory while also realizing there is a lot to improve on. The Rebels were impatient at times and made some unforced errors trying to play fast instead of trusting their set offense.
"A win is a win but I don't know we were as composed in the middle of the game as we should have been," Bonjavanni said. "At the same time, it's opening day and you're going to make mistakes. The one thing I keep saying to our guys is you need to be willing to play 6v6 because we can score. In the middle of the game we tried to push transition when we didn't need to. When we can get the ball 6-on-6 we're a really tough team to cover. We can roll out eight or nine guys who can score."
"It was great to get the win but we're definitely not where we want to be," Fay said. "Glad to celebrate but we'll regroup and get ready for the next one. Manalapan; for how far they've come, it's incredible. I'm friends with a couple guys on the team and they played excellent today and we could have done better."
MacKenzie is a returning Second Team All-Shore selection while Tyler Burns and Fay were both Third Team All-Shore picks last year. Lorenzo was Howell's leading scorer last season and Vincent Burns was one of the team's top-four scorers, as well. The scoring depth that also includes Kukan, Marich, and CJ Calafiore among the offensive six along with midfield additional contributions from sophomore Ian McDow and freshman Vin Meehan means the Rebels have plenty of versatility.
"It's nice to have different options but the one thing right now that's hard is we're trying to get these guys to understand that everybody is going to have a different day and you kind of have to wait your turn and play within the system," Bonjavanni said.
Manalapan, meanwhile, was very impressive considering it was the first game of the program's second varsity season. The Braves have plenty of young talent and showed fortitude in continuing to battle against a senior-laden Howell squad.
"The kids have a lot of pride in the uniform they wear and the name on the front," said Manalapan head coach Nick Filippone, who was previously an assistant coach at Howell. "A lot of guys came in and said we're going to make noise in the Shore and they were super hungry and confident going into the game. A lot of guys made huge plays. Marc Stefanelli played out of his mind with big momentum-swing goals, Grant Carle was a beast at face-off X and scored some big goals, and we threw a defensive scheme they were not expecting. They just played awesome today and I'm really proud of them."
Bonjavanni was the first person to tell us to keep an eye on Manalapan and predicted they would be a top-10 team sooner than later.
"Obviously they are really well-coached and he had a great game plan," Bonjavanni said. "They present some challenges and get you outside your comfort zone. That’s a big part of it for us this year though. Stick to the script instead of playing outside ourselves. Proud we made one more play at the end."
"This Howell team is just scratching the surface and they're going to make a lot of noise this year," Filippone said. "Coach Bonj is a phenomenal coach and they have assistants who are amazing coaches. They're going to push it and I really hope they get that number on the banner if it's not us. Nothing but respect for them."
No. 6 Howell 10, No. 10 Manalapan 9
Howell (1-0, 1-0) -- 4 1 2 3 -- 10
Manalapan (0-1, 0-1) -- 3 1 1 4 -- 9
GOALS -- H: Doug MacKenzie 4, Nate Lorenzo 2, Jack Marich 2, Tyler Burns, Dax Kukan; M: Marc Stefanelli 4, Grant Carle 2, Frankie D'Amore, Anthony Macchio.
ASSISTS -- H: Vin Burns 4, Nate Lorenzo, CJ Califiore; M: Frankie D'Amore, Christian Zdiarski.
SAVES -- H: Coin Fay, 12; M: Alex Kaplan, 6
SHOTS: Manalapan, 31-26.