Prior to the game Wednesday night against Ridgewood, fourth quarters had not exactly been harrowing experiences for Bridgewater-Raritan.
Not one opponent before this game had finished within four goals of the Panthers this season or given them much more to ponder in those final quarters than maybe the level of the water bottles or the daily specials at the local pizzeria for a post-game bite.
No, Bridgewater hardly had to break a sweat in the fourth after three quarters of dizzying ball movement and searing shots by its explosive offense.
Then again, the Panthers never had to shoot against Ridgewood goalie Noah Pounds in any of the previous 19 games.
Ridgewood rallied from a three-goal deficit in the fourth behind two goals from Peter Reuter and Pounds' sharp goaltending, but Bridgewater prevailed by summoning grit and opportunism in place of tight-game experience to outlast the Maroons in three overtimes.
Senior middie Ray Mastroianni ended the almost 57-minute marathon when he took a short pass from Scott Bieda and buried a 16-yard blast on an extra-man opportunity to rally the top-seeded Panthers to an 8-7 win over fourth-seeded Ridgewood in the semifinals of the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions semifinals at Kean University in Union.
"He was tremendous. He's the best goalie we faced all year," Mastroianni said of Pounds, who made four saves in that tense fourth quarter and finished with 16 as Ridgewood (17-8), No. 6 in The MSG Varsity Power Rankings, almost shocked top-ranked Bridgewater (20-0) to pull off the second big upset of the night.
In the earlier game, third-seeded Delbarton upended second-seeded Summit, 5-1, with an outstanding defensive showing and timely scoring in the first half. Bridgewater will defend its T of C title and seek its 36th consecutive win when it faces Delbarton at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Kean.
"He was making saves left and right, getting like four, five saves in a row," Mastroianni said. "We were all over him and he just kept responding. It was unbelievable."
Also hard to believe was Ridgewood's ability to overcome three sluggish offensive quarters to disrupt the two-month joy ride Bridgewater had been conducting. It came in averaging 13.5 goals a game while giving up just 3.7, and showed early in the game every intention of treating Ridgewood just as dismissively as all the other defenses that dared stand in the way.
The Panthers unloaded 11 shots to only three for Ridgewood in the first quarter, though Pounds halted three of those attempts and Max Luing and Jack Allard each scored to help the Maroons end the period tied at 2-2. Mike Serrante and Ryan Hollingsworth both connected for Bridgewater.
Bridgewater was able to carve out a 4-2 lead in the second quarter on single goals by Justin Higgins and John Longordo, but that slim margin spoke nothing of the actual dominance Bridgewater was asserting on offense. The Panthers produced 12 shots that period to only one for Ridgewood, yet Pounds made that edge practically insignificant by stopping four shots.
"He was stopping everything," Mastroianni said. "We knew we have to just keep shooting and eventually they've got to go."
Bieda and Mastroianni each scored in the third quarter to open a 6-3 lead for the Panthers, who had to feel as though things were falling into place for them, as usual. Particularly given the success that junior middie Brad Pietrucha was having on faceoffs, winning 9 of 12 through three quarters.
Pietrucha was standing in for senior standout Vince Colatriano, who was unable to play because of a hand injury sustained in the Group 4 championship game against Hunterdon Central last week.
But the tides quickly turned. Ridewood won the first four faceoffs of the fourth quarter and made use of them with consecutive goals by Peter Reuter, Allard and Blake Feagles in the first 2:00 to knot the score at 6-6. Longordo opened a 7-6 lead on a dodge with 7:57 to play, but Reuter knotted it again 2:41 later with shot on the run from seven yards away.
Pounds prevented a potential game-winner on an in-close attempt with just over 3:30 left in regulation. The Maroons called timeout with 3:26 to go and possessed for almost three full minutes before middies Jared Kaden and Steve Danylulk converged on a ball handler to force a turnover with 32 seconds to go. Both came up with additional defensive gems in the first two overtimes to hold back the upset-minded Maroons.
"As a team we just hung in there, we fought, we knew we couldn't give up," Kaden said. "We knew as long as we played our game, we had a chance to win. We didn't want to overplay too much. We wanted to let them make mistakes and take advantage of them when they do.
"The turnovers caused by Kaden and Danyluk took steam out of several Ridgewood possessions, but their squad was usually unable to cash in against Pounds and his hard-working defense, led by Tripp Telesco.
"You couldn't ask for more from them," Ridgewood head coach Mike Pounds said. "We gave it our best shot and unfortunately just came up a hair too short."
Ridgewood was wide on two shot attempts in the first overtime and had one of two shots in the second OT turned away by Bridgewater goalie Zack Jones. The other shot came during an EMO and skimmed off the right pipe. A couple inches to the left and Ridgewood possibly snaps Bridgewater's 35-game winning streak.
"They're a good team," Mike Pounds said. "You've got to play a clean game and hope you get a break here or there. They (Bridgewater) don't change what they do or how they do it. The fact that our kids didn't change what they do or how they did it was really great."
Mike Kinney covers boys lacrosse for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS