MONROE TOWNSHIP – The rallying cry for Southern Regional entering Saturday’s state sectional quarterfinal game was a simple one: give itself a chance to experience the routine and mundane one more time.

“All we wanted to do since we won on Wednesday is, we just wanted to be able to practice again on Monday,” said Rams head coach John Pampalone.

Practice is mandatory this coming Monday, because the Rams are heading to the state semifinals.

Junior attackman Cade Johnson scored five goals, including four in the second half when Southern overtook Monroe and rolled to a 10-5 victory in the quarterfinals of the NJSIAA South Group 4 Tournament at Hugh P. Walsh Field. The Rams trailed by one at halftime but a staunch defensive effort over the final two quarters allowed them to close the game on a 7-1 run and put away the Falcons one year after their season ended on the very same field.

“It’s a great feeling,” Johnson said. “They ended our season last year and we wanted to end theirs this year. We came out and played our game and, in the end, it was the outcome we wanted.”

Senior midfielder Ajani Steverson added a pair of goals while junior midfielder Aaron Hutchinson, senior attackman Nick Stankus and freshman midfielder Ryan Sininsky each scored once.  On the defensive end, it was senior goalie Luke Maul making six saves in back of a defense that was nearly impenetrable in the second half. The close-defense unit of senior Ian Maul, junior Noah Wasacz and freshman Nate Committee combined with sophomore LSM J.T. Hille, freshman LSM Brock Leftkus, junior midfielder Will Devane and senior midfielder Vinnie Deck to hold Monroe to only one goal over the final two quarters.

Southern will play at top-seeded Montgomery on Wednesday in the sectional semifinals.

The Rams (14-3) jumped out a 2-0 first-quarter lead on goals by Stankus and Johnson. After a forced turnover at the defensive end, Wasacz hit Johnson with a clearing pass just across the midfield stripe and Johnson sprinted into the zone to set up Stankus for the first goal of the game. On Southern’s second goal, Johnson curled in front from X, leaned into a defender and snuck a quick, overhand shot over the should of Monroe goalie Josh Estavillo with 6:44 left in the quarter.

No. 1 of the list of things to do against the Falcons was to slow down the game and avoid letting them run in transition. Monroe’s first two goals illustrated why that message was paramount.

A fast-break goal by Anthony Abreu at the 2:15 mark cut Southern’s lead to 2-1, and off the ensuing face-off, Abreu scored again to suddenly tie the game with two minutes on the clock.

Monroe then grabbed a 3-2 lead midway through the second quarter when Matt Dorrian drove hard on Devane down the right side and beat Maul with a shot up high. Nearly three minutes later, Steverson tied the game at three when he took advantage of time and space and blasted a long-range, left-handed shot past Estavillo. The Falcons answered quickly, however, when Chris Pucciarelli scored with 3:34 left on the clock, giving Monroe a 4-3 lead it would hold heading into halftime.

“Monroe is a really athletic and strong team and they want to play a much faster brand of lacrosse than we want to play,” Pampalone said. “Parts of the first half we really fed into their game and allowed them to get out and run. We focused at halftime on slowing the game down, making our offensive possession little longer and then finding the back of the net. We had to make sure when we had to play defense, when we made a mistake, we were playing 6-on-6, not 6-on-5 or 5-on-4, and I think in the second half we did a tremendous job doing that.”

A roughing penalty on Committee late in the first half set Monroe up with possession and a one-minute, extra-man opportunity that extended 56 seconds into the third quarter. With the Falcons leading by one and having the entire halftime break to draw up a play, the first minute of the second half seemed like a potential turning point in the game.

Southern’s defense kept Monroe to the outside and Maul made a big save about 30 seconds into the quarter. The Rams then executed a successful clear and killed off the rest of the penalty.

“That was huge,” Wasacz said. “We knew we had to kill that penalty and Luke ended up making a great save, and because of that we were able to get the ball back up to the offense.”

With 9:15 on the clock in the third, Hutchinson cut to his left to find a shooting lane and beat Estavillo with a seeing-eye shot that tied the game at four. Just over a minute later, Johnson fired a pass to Steverson from deep in the alley and the senior stepped into a shot and ripped it past Estavillo. The Rams would never trail again.

Late in the third quarter with the Rams playing with a man-advantage, Johnson picked up a ground ball, dodged a defender and whipped a shot into the top-left corner to give Southern a 6-4 lead. Monroe came back with a goal by Dorrian with 45 seconds left to cut Southern’s lead to 6-5 heading to the fourth quarter.

The final 12 minutes belonged solely to the Rams. Johnson gave Southern its two-goal lead back when he again picked up a ground ball just above the crease, found shooting space and scored. Johnson’s fourth goal came when he started from X, regained his footing after falling, and rocketed a perfect shot just under the crossbar to make it 8-5 with 7:40 to play. His fifth goal was pure power as he muscled his way through three Monroe defenders to give Southern a 9-5 lead with 3:09 left to play.

“We’ve been fortunate to have some great attackman in this program and he’s next in that long line,” Pampalone said of Johnson. “His season started off a little slow but since probably about game four or five there haven’t been too many games where he hasn’t had three, four, five points. He’s really carrying us offensively. He’s our go-to guy and he’s become our vocal leader.”

It was a back-and-forth battle in the face-off circle between Southern sophomore Drew Wasacz and Monroe’s Jamie Tepe, but Wasacz found his groove at the right time in winning three straight draws in the fourth quarter to help Southern keep its momentum. Less than a minute after Johnson’s goal made it 9-5, Sininsky walked in unimpeded and scored an easy goal to stretch the Rams’ lead to 10-5 with 2:26 to go.

While Johnson powered the offense, the defense was busy playing arguably its best half of the season. The unsung hero of the group was Devane, who as a magnet on Dorrian all game and allowed the rest of the defense to stay home and not slide early.

“Will Devane just does so much for us and has elevated his game to where he now guards the other team’s best offensive middie,” Pampalone said. “He allows our long-stick defenders to stay on their man and (opponents) really can’t get us with matchups because Will has been so strong all year.”

“I can tell you he was working hard all game,” Noah Wasacz said. “It’s not easy to cover someone who’s fast and also bigger than you but he managed to keep (Dorrian) in front of him and got ground balls when he needed to. His play was huge for us today.”

Now it’s onto the semifinals against Montgomery, the state’s No. 10 ranked team. It will surely be a tall order but the Rams will be where they want to be on Monday, and that’s on the practice field preparing for another game.

“Going to the state semifinals is no small feat,” Pampalone said. “You start with (32 in Group 4) and then when you’re down to eight everybody can play at that point. Everybody’s well-coached and everybody has really good players. To get down to the final four in a section is an honor and it’s a testament to these guys. They aren’t done playing lacrosse.”


Box Score

Southern 10, Monroe 5 

Southern (13-3)213410
Monroe (15-4)22105


GOALS – S: Cade Johnson 5, Ajani Steverson 2, Nick Stankus, Aaron Hutchinson, Ryan Sininsky; M: Matt Dorrian 2, Anthony Abreu 2, Chris Pucciarelli.

ASSISTS – S: Cade Johnson 2, Nick Stankus 1; M: Matt Dorrian, Chris Pucciarelli, Robert Dorian, Brandon Scott, Brian Kokal.

SAVES – S: Luke Maul 6; M: Josh Estavillo 8.

SHOTS: Southern, 32-27.


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