On the Doorstep of Immortality: Rumson-Fair Haven holds off Bridgewater-Raritan to advance to boys lacrosse Tournament of Champions final
RUMSON -- And then, there were two.
Since the beginning, New Jersey high school lacrosse has played down to one undisputed champion. That tradition, however, is coming to an end after the NJSIAA decided to scrap the Tournament of Champions across all sports following this year. The last boys lacrosse T.O.C final matchup is set after Wednesday's semifinal games, and one of the teams competing for the ultimate trophy will be Rumson-Fair Haven.
The Bulldogs' historic 2022 season continued on their home turf of Borden Stadium with a 13-8 victory over Bridgewater-Raritan that was far from a perfect performance yet was still vintage Rumson. The 'Dawgs shook off a comeback bid by the Panthers in the second half to score four straight goals spanning the final three minutes of the third quarter into the early portion of the fourth quarter.
Now, there is one team left in Rumson's way. On Sunday night at Mount Olive High School, Rumson and Mountain Lakes will square off in the Tournament of Champions final. No Shore Conference team had ever reached the T.O.C semifinals prior to this season, and now, in the final T.O.C., Rumson has a chance to finish as the No. 1 team in New Jersey.
"It's so special," said junior defenseman Beau Kemler. "The support from this community has been amazing. We've been playing together our whole lives so this is something super special. We've dreamed about this, knew we could get here one day, and now we're in the last T.O.C. final."
"This is what they wanted from really the time they were freshmen," said Rumson head coach Marc Moreau. "This is every senior class's goal to get there and now we're here. Does it feel like history? No, honestly, it just feels like we're doing what we set out to do. We wanted to play in every game the state has available to play and Sunday's the last one and we're in it."
Once again it was a balanced effort for Rumson. Senior midfielder Tommy French and junior midfielder Cole Cashion each tallied three goals and one assist while senior attackman Phil Passalaqua delivered two goals and two assists. Junior attackman Quinn Stankovits and senior attackman Christian Bockelmann each had two goals and one assist, and senior midfielder Jack McCarren scored once. In goal, junior netminder Will Setteducate made several key saves among his eight total stops.
Rumson and Bridgewater met during the regular season with the Bulldogs earning a fairly dominant 12-4 victory in April. In that game, Rumson was without Bockelmann, who would go on to miss 19 games with a broken thumb before returning during the state sectional tournament. Conversely, the Panthers had junior midfielder and Rutgers commit Colin Kurdyla in the lineup but were without him in the rematch after he suffered an injury in the Group 4 final. All signs pointed toward another Rumson victory and it was certainly trending that way after the first 12 minutes.
Cashion started the scoring at 10:37 before Bridgewater answered with a goal by Alex Delierre on an extra-man opportunity at 7:31. Rumson then netted three straight goals from Bockelmann, Passalaqua, and McCarren, the latter of which came with 18 seconds on the clock, to take a 4-1 lead into the second quarter.
It was not the beginning of a blowout, however, even after Cashion struck for his second goal off an assist from French to give Rumson a 5-1 lead 1:31 into the second quarter. Bridgewater sank the next two goals out of the pockets of Rob Strano and Matt Maciolek to trim the Bulldogs' advantage to 5-3. Closing quarters strong has been a staple of Rumson throughout the season and that was on full display Wednesday. McCarren's goal late in the first quarter was repeated in the second when Stankovits scored with a blistering turnaround shot off a pass from Passalaqua with just 17 seconds left in the half, giving RFH a 6-3 halftime edge.
Bridgewater's Matt Cuzzola had an exceptional day at the face-off X and his work coupled with an aggressive ride and an efficient man-up unit helped the Panthers get right back in the game. Senior attackman Brady Kurdyla, a Rutgers signee, scored at 7:52 of the third quarter and then struck for another goal on the man-advantage just over a minute later to pull the Panthers within a goal at 6-5.
Rumson needed a spark and quickly. French played sparingly as a junior but as a senior, he has been the breakout player in the Shore Conference. The Babson College commit has scored several critical goals among his 38 total tallies this season, and he did it again late in the third quarter to help Rumson begin to pull away. French scored three nearly-identical goals in a span of 3:29 to close the third quarter, two off slick dodges followed by pinpoint shots, and the third off a pass from Bockelmann with 1:02 left - another late goal - to give Rumson a 9-5 lead.
"It was all about our coaching adjustments," French said. "They were overplaying us over the top so we switched it up down the alley to get the short-stick matchups. I had three in a row to make it 9-6 and we 4ode it from there."
Rumson prefers to push the pace on offense and keep opposing defenders moving, but the Bulldogs aren't stubborn enough to stick to a plan that isn't working.
"We just needed to slow it down," French said. "We were playing fast so they were getting turnovers and transition opportunities where they were really scoring."
Passalaqua scored his second of the game 42 seconds into the fourth quarter for a 10-6 Rumson lead. The Bridgewater EMO unit was a perfect 3-for-3 in the game and struck again when Kyle Holmes found the back of the net at 9:57. Stankovits answered with a goal at 8:06 for an 11-7 RFH lead but the Panthers kept hanging around with goals by Maciolek and Tom Tremarco to cut Rumson's lead to 11-8 with 2:08 left. Rumson's face-off unit was able to battle for two key possessions down the stretch and Cashion and Bockelmann scored what were effectively empty-net goals in the final 63 seconds to clinch the victory.
"We have to play 48 minutes of hard lacrosse and finish every quarter strong. That's what we preach," Kemler said. "We know if we stay to ourselves, stay disciplined and play our lacrosse we're going to cone out on top. It wasn't pretty at times but we got the job done."
Mountain Lakes, one of the state's great lacrosse programs led by legendary head coach Tim Flynn, awaits Rumson in Sunday's Tournament of Champions final. The Lakers have been here before, winning three T of C titles, the most recent coming in 2019, and appearing in two additional finals. This is Rumson's first appearance and Wednesday's win over Bridgewater was the program's first in the T of C. But this is a moment the Bulldogs are more than prepared for. A challenging schedule and years of working toward this goal have them locked in on the task ahead.
"Our goal all year long was to get to the T.O.C. final so it's not hard to focus on the end goal," Kemler said. "We have great players and a heck of a coaching staff who gets us prepared."
"They are one of the best teams in the state and we are right there with them," French said. "We're pumped. We're going to come out ready to play Sunday. The last T.O.C. victory is going to be ours."
Rumson-Fair Haven 13, Bridgewater-Raritan 8
Bridgewater (18-4) 1 2 2 3 -- 9
Rumson (22-4) 4 2 3 4 -- 13
GOALS -- BR: Matt Maciolek 2, Brady Kurdyla 2, Alex Delierre, Rob Strano, Kyle Holmes, Tom Tremarco; RFH: Tommy French 3, Cole Cashion 3, Quinn Stankovits 2, Phil Passalaqua 2, Christian Bockelmann 2, Jack McCarren.
ASSISTS -- BR: Matt Maciolek 2, Alex Delierre, Tom Tremarco; RFH: Phil Passalaqua 2, Tommy French, Cole Cashion, Quinn Stankovits, Christian Bockelmann.
SAVES -- BR: Will Kasica 7; RFH: Will Setteducate 8.