WEST LONG BRANCH – The greatest season in the history of Manasquan High School’s boys lacrosse program finished one goal short.

In a fantastic, back-and-forth game between two of the top four teams in New Jersey, perennial state power Mountain Lakes held off the Warriors, 7-6, in the NJSIAA Group 1 state championship game on Friday afternoon at Shore Regional High School.

Restarting a game that was suspended Wednesday afternoon because of severe weather in Monmouth County, Manasquan led 3-2 heading into Friday and then 4-3 at halftime. Mountain Lakes, however, authored a 4-1 third quarter that gave the Lakers a two-goal edge heading into the final 12 minutes, and from there they were able to protect the lead and win their second straight state title.

Over the last four years, Manasquan had won every title there is, except the crown that once again eluded them on Friday.

The Manasquan defense closes in on Mountain Lakes' Drew Brennfleck during the NJSIAA Group 1 championship game. (Photo by Paula Lopez/palimages.com).
The Manasquan defense closes in on Mountain Lakes' Drew Brennfleck during the NJSIAA Group 1 championship game. (Photo by Paula Lopez/palimages.com).

“When it’s at this level it can go either way, and that’s the way these high-level games tend to go,” said a somber Manasquan head coach Sean Cunningham. “They’re very talented, they’re very well-coached and they made more plays today than we were able to make. We ran into some penalty issues and that gave them a little more momentum down the stretch.”

Back on Wednesday, Manasquan built a 3-2 lead on two goals by senior attackman Canyon Birch and one by junior midfielder Matt Franzoni, and also due in large part to great face-off work by freshman Max Pauwels, who held his own against Mountain Lakes senior and University of Pennsylvania recruit Matt Palazzi. Senior goalie Mike LaPoint was also terrific with seven saves through the first quarter and a half.

Shortly after play resumed with 7:54 left in the second quarter, Mountain Lakes tied the score at three on a goal by Trevor Glavin. Manasquan was able to get the lead back, however, when sophomore attackman Casey Mulligan dodged and unleashed a blast into the back of the net with 2:13 left in the first half.

Late in the first half, Manasquan’s all-star long-stick midfielder, Syracuse-bound senior Mike Page, was called for a one-minute unnecessary roughness penalty when he ran hard through a pick. The flag gave Mountain Lakes an extra-man opportunity that extended 50 seconds into the third quarter and also eliminated the face-off at the beginning of the second half. Manasquan was technically able to kill off the penalty, but Tristan Plotts scored one second after the penalty expired to tie the game at four.

That was the beginning of some penalty issues for the Warriors, who were flagged eight times in the game and four times in the second half. The Warriors allowed just one EMO goal in the game, but the man-down situations took their toll. Palazzi scored at 7:37 to give Mountain Lakes its first lead of the game, 5-4, but Birch answered 24 seconds later off a dish from senior attackman Ryan Anderson to knot the score at five apiece. Lakes closed the third quarter with goals by University of Virginia-bound midfielder Drew Brennfleck at 4:58 and Alan Stoloff at 3:27 to take a 7-5 lead into the fourth quarter.

“I thought we were still playing really hard and the boys were communicating,” Cunningham said. “Again, a couple penalty calls don’t go our way and they get some prime possession and the ability to wear our defense down there.”

Anderson pulled Manasquan to within 7-6 with 8:49 to play, but the Warriors were unable to find the equalizer despite having a few great opportunities. Midfielder Mike Farinacci was wide-open on the crease for what would have been a glorious scoring opportunity, but a pass his way sailed over his head and out of bounds. In the final 40 seconds, Mountain Lakes was flagged for being offsides and Manasquan was granted a 30-second EMO. The Warriors never got a shot off, however, as a pass to the crease deflected off a stick and out of bounds, giving possession back to Mountain Lakes.

The loss was heartbreaking for a variety of reasons: the close score, the handful of prominent missed chances, the last hurrah for an incredible senior class.

“It hurts when you don’t get the result you want,” Cunningham. “These guys played their (butts) off and left it all on the field. I’m proud of them and I love them and I told them what I always tell them: when they win it’s on them, and when they lose it’s on me. I gotta eat this one and I’m going to have to live with that for…the rest of my life. I’m just sad I don’t get to coach these seniors anymore. I’ve had them since they were in middle school.”

Anyone not knowing the back story of the two teams who stopped by Feeney Field on Friday would have seen the game for what it was: a full, 48-minute battle between two of the best lacrosse squads in New Jersey. But even through Manasquan’s tremendous five-year run, there is still the perception among some people in the northern part of the state that teams from the Shore Conference don’t belong on the same field as teams like Mountain Lakes. As the Warriors made clear on Wednesday and Friday, that is not the case.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game because when we came out two days ago it was probably one of the faster-paced games of the entire year. We knew they were a much-improved team and had a lot of their guys back; and so did we,” said Brennfleck, who last season also helped Mountain Lakes roll to a 16-7 win over Manasquan in the Group 1 final.”

As Manasquan gets knocked for a schedule that is not on par with teams like Mountain Lakes, Birch hears similar doubts from people who seek to discount his record-breaking career. Brennfleck brushed that notion aside, as well.

“Canyon Birch is one of the best players in the country, not just the state, and we knew no matter what it’d be a tough game,” he said. “I played with him last summer and, against any competition, he can score against everyone. People knock him for that (competition Manasquan plays) but everything he’s done he worked hard for and he’s earned every bit of it. He had a great career.”

Birch, who will continue his career at Penn State, scored three goals and added one assist on Friday to finish the season with a state-high 118 goals and 51 assists for 169 points. He concluded his career with state records for goals (392) and points (558).

LaPoint was absolutely incredible in the cage with 18 saves and kept Manasquan from falling too far behind when Mountain Lakes was riding a wave of momentum in the third quarter. Senior midfielder James Pendergist gutted his way through multiple leg injuries and senior defenseman Jack Fabean returned to the game after also suffering what appeared to be a leg injury during the third quarter. It was an inspiring performance that lacked only a winning outcome.

“It’s a tremendous senior group, they’ve accomplished more than anyone and have been a huge part of my life for the past eight years or so,” Cunningham said. “They gave me everything they could. They put it all out there and that’s the message I tried to send to them.”

“This doesn’t get any easier. There’s no magic pill. I can’t make this magically be ok, and if you are ok with it what the hell are you doing here, anyway? We’re going to go back and have to learn to deal with this. It’s part of life. Hopefully, we can teach them a life lesson on top of it.���


Box Score

Mountain Lakes 7, Manasquan 6 

Manasquan (21-1)13116
Mountain Lakes (17-2)12407

Canyon Birch 3, Ryan Anderson, Casey Mulligan, Matt Franzoni: ML: Drew Brennfleck 2, Alan Stoloff 2, Matt Palazzi, Trevor Glavin, Tristan Plotts.

ASSISTS – MS: Canyon Birch, Ryan Anderson; ML: Trevor Glavin 2, Spencer Goodbar.

SAVES – MS: Mike LaPoint, 18; ML: Harrison Thompson, 7.

SHOTS: Mountain Lakes, 33-25.


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