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EVESHAM TOWNSHIP -- After a Cherokee turnover with 1:42 left to play in a tie game, Howell had everything set up to sink the go-ahead goal and advance in the NJSIAA state playoffs. But sometimes, all the planning in the world can't substitute for ingenuity on the fly from a group of seasoned veterans.

With the clocking ticking toward triple zeroes in regulation between Howell and Cherokee in Saturday's NJSIAA South Group 4 quarterfinals, junior attackman Nate Lorenzo found an open spot on the crease, took a pass from senior midfielder Tyler Burns, and scored an alley-oop goal with three seconds left to give the Rebels to a sensational 8-7 victory over the Chiefs.

Burns dodged his defender and dished to a wide-open Lorenzo on the right side of the goal. The pass was high but Lorenzo went up to get it, shot and scored in mid-air, and sent the Rebels into the sectional semifinals.

"To be honest, it was a totally different play (from what was called during a timeout)," Lorenzo said. "I saw that opening and Tyler and I have good chemistry. I just attacked the backside and he saw me."

"With about 10 seconds left I was getting ready to call a timeout because we didn't get what we wanted," said Howell head coach Anthony Bonjavanni. "But (assistant coach Mike) Cantelli grabbed me and said, 'Let them go'. And obviously, he was right."

Howell will now play top-seeded Southern Regional in the semifinals on Wednesday. Southern is the defending champion and a three-time sectional champion while the Rebels will be aiming to reach their first sectional final.

Lorenzo and senior midfielder Doug MacKenzie each scored twice while Tyler Burns had a goal and two assists. Senior attackman Vin Burns had a goal and an assist and senior middies CJ Calafiore and Dax Kukan scored once.

Senior goalie Colin Fay was excellent with 12 saves to back up a defense that played outstanding, weathering multiple long possessions in 90-degree heat. Cherokee out-shot Howell by more than a 2-to-1 ratio but timely stops made sure the Rebels were in the game from start to finish.

"We're thin down there and the kids know they have to dig deep," Bonjavanni said. "Donny (sophomore Donovan Marra), we put a pole in his hands about a month ago. Colin Finnegan is a freshman LSM who has played lights out for us. And, obviously, we're relying a lot on (senior) Shayne Hughes and (junior) Shawn Megill. The job they did today was probably the best they've played all year."

It was a one-goal game for all 48-minutes, so it was fitting it came down to a game-winning goal with mere seconds on the clock. MacKenzie started the scoring at 9:59 of the first quarter but Cherokee's Sean Cole responded just over a minute later. Howell closed the first quarter with Lorenzo scoring off a pass from Tyler Burns at 4:22.

Where Howell's defense really shined was during the second quarter. Howell controlled possession in the first quarter but Cherokee dominated the second, outshooting the Rebels 12-2. Howell had to play a ton of defense in the second quarter as the heat intensified, including about four minutes straight when the Chiefs held possession when a flag was down and then worked through a one-minute man advantage. Howell was able to kill off the penalty, as well. The game could have easily gotten away from the Rebels there but Fay and the defense not only prevented that, they kept Howell in the lead for most of the period.

"We just have to keep going to them and encouraging them during timeouts or offensive possession to dig deep," Fay said of the Howell defense. "And I have to have their back because they're out there having mine."

Cherokee did score with 1:20 on the clock to tie the score 2-2 and it came on a controversial play. Howell was whistled for a failure-to-advance penalty and Bonjavanni was adamant that 20 seconds had not passed and no call should have been made. The whistle and subsequent restart gave Cherokee an immediate fast break and the Chiefs converted when Cole dished to Miguel Lontok for the first of his four goals.

Cherokee came out of halftime and broke the 2-2 tie when Lontok scored an unassisted goal at 11:21. Howell came right back when Calafiore dodged and hit the top corner with a splendid shot at 8:28 and then took a 4-3 lead when MacKenzie worked off a high pick and blasted a shot up top at 7:21.

One of the few slipups by the Howell defense allowed Cherokee to tie the game 4-4 with 6:30 left in the third quarter as Nate Bialy intercepted a defensive-zone pass and scored one-on-one. Cherokee then went ahead with 3.3 seconds left in the quarter when Jake Owings set up Lontok for his third goal of the game.

Howell's offense was out of synch in the middle two quarters but started strong in the fourth when Vin Burns curled around the cage and bounced one through the legs of Cherokee goalie Jake Ellis to tie the game 5-5. Exactly one minute later, Kukan took a pass from Vin Burns and bounced one in from long range to put Howell up, 6-5.

Cherokee answered on a man-up goal by Lontok with 6:06 left before Burns worked off a pick, dodged hard to his right, and whipped a shot into the net for a 7-6 Howell lead with 4:40 left. However, Bialy was able to tie the score again for Cherokee with an unassisted goal at 3:19.

Senior Glenn Giordano won the ensuing face-off for Howell and the Rebels had possession with the clock now under two minutes, but an unforced turnover in the offensive zone allowed Cherokee to win a ground ball and call timeout with 1:56 left. That mistake could have ended Howell's season, but a tough ride by Howell off the restart forced an errant pass by Cherokee that went out of bounds. Howell now had the ball with 1:42 on the clock to hold for the final shot. This time, the Rebels made the most of their opportunity.

"This could have been our last game," Lorenzo said. "I grew up with these players, these seniors, and this could have been our last game together. I just wanted to put it all on the line. You can deal with being tired after the game but you can't deal with it if you didn't give 100 percent."

Since before the 2022 class was even in high school, expectations were high for this group of seniors. They knew if they stayed together and played to their potential they could reach heights no other Howell boys lacrosse team has. Now, they are two wins away from winning a sectional championship.

"We just want three more days with these guys and we'll worry about the next one after that," Bonjavannis said. "A little bit of poetic justice with these guys is that when they were freshmen we came down here for a state quarterfinal game and for certain reasons we had to start about six or seven freshmen that day. We got our butts kicked against a good Cherokee team. We talked about three years later going back to the same spot, and if they're ready. Obviously, our kids didn't shy away from it."

"We've been talking about it forever," Fay said. "I remember being in sixth, seventh grade and Bonj coming up to us at a camp and asking us if we're ready to win a state championship. We've all been working for it. It's all we've ever thought about."

 

Box Score

5-Howell 8, 4-Cherokee 7

Howell (14-6)      2 0 2 4 - 8

Cherokee (10-6) 1 1 3 2 - 7

GOAL -- H: Nate Lorenzo 2, Doug MacKenzie 2, Tyler Burns, Vin Burns, CJ Calafiore, Dax Kukan; C: Miguel Lontok 4, Nate Bialy 2, Sean Cole.

ASSISTS -- H: Tyler Burns 2, Vin Burns; C: Sean Cole, Jack Owings.

SAVES -- H: Colin Fay 12; C: Jake Ellis 5.

SHOTS -- Howell, 36-15.

 

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