MANASQUAN – A lot of state championships have been won on the hallowed patch of grass now known as Vic Kubu Warrior Field. Manasquan's boys lacrosse team now has one of its own.

Playing on the same field where their season ended in heartbreaking fashion last year, the Warriors left no doubt on a sweltering Saturday afternoon to take care of unfinished business and bring home a championship trophy.

Junior attackman Canyon Birch continued his magical season with six goals and five assists while freshman attackman Casey Mulligan added four goals and senior Sean Anderson was brilliant in going 21-for-27 on face-offs as Manasquan defeated Madison, 15-8, to capture the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 1 sectional title.

"It's just amazing, the best feeling in the world," Birch said. "We watched the film from last year a few times just remembering what it felt like and we didn't want that to happen again. To get redemption from last year, losing on this field on a last-second pipe shot, we came back and dedicated this season to the seniors from last year. We told them we wouldn't let them down and I don't think we disappointed them."

"This is a huge win for us," said junior defenseman Jack Fabean. "Everyone on this field knew we could do it. I think we proved everyone wrong from the beginning of the year who counted us out and thought we lost all our firepower."

Manasquan wins South Jersey Group 1 title

The Warriors (20-2) were relentless from the opening whistle to secure the program's second sectional title in three years and advance to the Group 2 state championship game. Manasquan, the No. 5 ranked team in New Jersey by, will meet No. 4 Mountain Lakes for the Group 2 crown at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Livingston High School.

"We talked about having an "A" game and today was an "A" game," said Manasquan head coach Sean Cunningham. " We did the little things we pride ourselves on as a program -- 50/50 ground balls, being a relentless ground ball team and riding -- and that's been a hallmark of this program."

Birch scored five times in the first half, including a laser beam into the top corner on the short side with 4.4 seconds left in the first half to give Manasquan and 8-5 lead. In the second half, Birch played the role of facilitator with one goal and five assists. He now has 122 goals this season, seven away from tying the state record of 129 set by A.L. Johnson's Matt Poskay in 2001. He also leads New Jersey with 174 points.

"We talked before the game and I said, 'Listen, man, you have to have a game'," Cunningham said. "For my money he's the best player in New Jersey. The goal scoring early and often and then down the stretch the feeds and getting assists, talk about production and being evenly split. There's no answer for that. Madison is a really good team, they have a great defense and coach Armstrong is a great coach, so for him to have that type of game against that caliber of an opponent with that gameplan is unbelievable."

"I try to get some points and get my teammates involved and be the best player I can be in these games," Birch said. "It's great having confidence in everybody else. I know what every single one of these kids can do and they can do some amazing things."

One of those players was Anderson, who played the best game of his career by dominating the face-off X to give Manasquan plenty of possessions and prevent Madison from generating any momentum. He was 4-for-6 in the first quarter, 5-for-7 in the second quarter, 6-for-7 in the third and 4-of-5 in the fourth quarter.

"I can't heap enough praise on that boy right now, he was phenomenal," Cunningham said. "That's the best game he ever played and what a time to do it."

"He kind of struggled at the beginning of the season but as the season went on he's gotten better and better," said senior midfielder Evan Hilla, who comes off the wing on Manasquan's face-off unit. "Coach Cunningham's brother (Conor, a former FOGO at CBA and the current FOGO at Arcadia University) came back after his college season and was working with him every day, and that was a huge help."

"Big props to Anderson because he let (Madison) get no momentum and that was a huge part of our game," Fabean said.

The Warriors combined their tremendous skill at both ends with a tireless drive that saw them win the battle for the majority of the 50-50 ground balls and force turnovers with a suffocating ride. Senior midfielder Evan Hill and junior long-stick midfielder Mike Page were both excellent off the wings and in the defensive end. Page showcased his difference-making ability early in the game when he forced a turnover in the defensive end that started a transition rush. He dished to defenseman Jack Fabean across midfield and Fabean then found Birch for a goal that put Manasquan up 2-1.

Manasquan made a lot of great plays that don't show up on the stat sheet, and that's a major reason why the Warriors were able to win a title on Saturday.

"We practice ground balls at the Army Camp and it doesn't get harder than that, it's pretty rocky over there," Hilla said. "Fifty-fifty ground balls win games and that showed today. We pretty much controlled the 50/50 ground balls all day and it gave us the momentum we needed."

"People think we're all just super-talented but they don't realize how hard we work once the ball's on the turf," Fabean said. "They don't realize how bad our team wants it and I think that's a big part of our game."

An unforced error ended Manasquan's first possession of the game and Madison capitalized immediately as Ryan Schmitz ripped a shot past LaPoint to give the Dodgers (14-5) a 1-0 lead. Birch answered with a blast of his own to tie the score at one, and Page's great play in his own end led to Fabean setting up Birch for a transition goal and a 2-1 Warriors lead.

Madison answered on a goal by Anthony Mazzella to tie the game at two, but Manasquan would score three straight goals to take a 5-2 lead. Directly off the face-off following Mazzella's goal, Mulligan dished to Birch to make it 3-1. Junior attackman Ryan Anderson followed with a goal off a great pass from senior midfielder James McElduff to extend the lead to 4-2. The Warriors made with 5-2 with a sequence that epitomized their effort, picking up a key ground ball, forcing a turnover on a ride and eventually scoring when junior midfielder James Pendergist converted a pass from Ryan Anderson with 16.5 seconds left. LaPoint then made a big save in the final seconds to keep Manasquan up by three.

Birch began the second quarter with his fourth goal of the game to make it 6-2, then, after a Madison goal, senior midfielder James Mele scored while breaking his stick to make it 7-3. The Dodgers got one back to make it 7-4 and drew a penalty in the process, and then Jim Kenney scored on the extra-man opportunity to pull Madison to within 7-5 with 43.5 seconds left in the first half.

Madison was starting to generate some momentum, but Birch squashed it with a marvelous goal to end the half. Coming off a timeout with 12 seconds to play, Birch rolled back to his left and unleashed a perfect shot into the top-left corner on the short side, giving Manasquan an 8-5 lead with 4.4 seconds left.

"I wanted to drive top side and have the middie - I believe it was Matt Franzoni - push over so I could feed him if his guy slid," Birch said. "But his guy didn't and I felt (my defender) get my top shoulder and put his stick out in front. That's when I gave the rollback and he wasn't there."

"We drew up a play out of a timeout and James and Canyon kind of audibled it, and thankfully they did," Cunningham said. "It again speaks to Canyon's IQ and his ability to diagnose things on the field and on the fly. He saw that he had that space top side and he had that roll-back. And you talk about shot placement rolling back to your week hand, I couldn't have walked in and placed it with my hand any better."

Manasquan owned the third quarter and scored six times to put the game away. Birch got it going again when he drew a double team and dished to Mulligan to make it 9-5. Madison came back with another EMO goal by Kenney, but the Warriors responded immediately as Sean Anderson won the face-off and dished to his brother Ryan who fed Mulligan for the goal and a 10-6 lead. Mulligan scored his third of the quarter off another assist from Birch to make it 11-6, then Birch scored his sixth goal of the game after another tremendous Manasquan ride forced a turnover. After drawing a penalty, freshman midfielder Mike Farinacci scored an EMO goal to stretch the lead to 13-6 after three quarters.

Madison got two goals early in the fourth quarter to cut Manasquan's lead to 13-8 but Mulligan and Franzoni scored in the final five minutes off assists from Birch to clinch the sectional championship.

Now the Warriors will try to bring home the program's first overall state championship and become just the second Shore Conference team (Rumson) to win an NJSIAA group title. To do so they'll have to beat a very good Mountain Lakes team led by legendary coach Tim Flynn. Two years ago the Warriors lost to Chatham, 4-2, in the Group 2 championship. They were the new kid on the block that day and an underdog to a seasoned Cougars squad. This time it's different. When they're on their game as they were Saturday, the Warriors are as good as any team in New Jersey. In their minds, there's plenty of lacrosse left to be played.

"We're going to be happy with this and celebrate and have fun, but tomorrow it's on to Mountain Lakes," Birch said.


Box Score

Manasquan 15, Madison 8

Madison (14-5)      2 3 1 2 -- 8

Manasquan (20-2) 5 8 5 2 -- 15

GOALS -- Madison: Anthony Mazzella 2, Jim Kenney 2, Ryan Schmitz, Austin Schmitz, Ian Waresk, No. 6; Manasquan: Canyon Birch 6, Casey Mulligan 4, Ryan Anderson, James Pendergist, James Mele, Mike Farinacci, Matt Franzoni.

ASSISTS -- Madison: Ian Waresk, Ryan Schmitz, No. 8; Manasquan: Canyon Birch 5, Ryan Anderson 2, Casey Mulligan, James McElduff, Jack Fabean.

SAVES -- Madison: Nick Spagnoletti 13; Manasquan: Mike LaPoint 5.

SHOTS: Manasquan, 40-23.


Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.


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