NJ boys lacrosse: Group 4 preview
GROUP 4 PREVIEW
2011 CHAMPION: Bridgewater-Raritan defeated Hunterdon Central, 9-6, to claim its second title in three years, and the Panthers went on to end Summit's 68-game winning streak in the Tournament of Champions final.
2012 FAVORITE: Bridgewater-Raritan. It's still a little hard to believe that on April 23 of last year, the Panthers were considered merely a pretty good team, and rightly so. They were 5-2 at the time and might have been 4-3 if not for a fourth-quarter rally to beat Ridge in the opening game of the season.
Bridgewater-Raritan spun off 15 consecutive wins from that point to claim the Group 4 title and then the Tournament of Champions crown with a 6-5 upset over defending champion Summit. The defense had tightened up considerably around goalie Zach Jones, the offense had reached a consistent--sometimes overpowering--tempo and the faceoff trio of Tyler Barbarich, Brian Lenskold and Vincent Colatrianno was maybe just one clamp shy of brilliant.
The 2012 Panthers seem equipped to do the same types of things, with the exception of the so-so start. Jones is back in goal, the attack is deep and explosive and the midfield athletic and multi-faceted. Barbarich and Lenskold have graduated, but that may just mean that Colatrianno now gets to fall into a comfortable faceoff rhythm a lot earlier in the game now.
Seniors Ryan Hollingsworth (45 goals, 33 assists), Scott Bieda (37 goals, 38 assists) and Justin Higgins (24 goals) form perhaps the most dangerous attack line in the state. Collectively, there is speed, awesome shooting ability and a tremendous amount of big-game experience.
The Panthers reached the Group 4 final when they were sophomores and won the Somerset County Tournament last year. Junior Tyler Konen was generally the fourth attackman last spring and he produced 21 goals and 14 assists--not bad for an afterthought.
There is no debating how substantial is the loss of Barbarich. He was the state's top faceoff man and an outstanding overall player and leader. But the Panthers still flaunt a formidable midfield unit that includes perhaps the most improved player of 2011, senior Ray Mastroianni (31 goals), along with John Longordo (22) and Steve Danyluk.
There also were significant losses felt on defense. B.J. Grill was the heart and soul of the team last year and Nick Bergenty was a quietly reliable leader who knew his position well and made few mistakes.
But this current defense is in very good hands. Seniors Evan Mock, a returning starter, and Connor Murphy and junior pole Jared Kaden all have experience against excellent teams and in pressure--packed situations, and they have Jones backing them up. He did not get always get the attention he deserved last year because of Grill's energetic play and the potency of the Bridgewater offense, but he'll earn his due credit this spring.
Bridgewater-Raritan opens its season Saturday in Warren against Watchung Hills, then is home to Cherry Hill East on Tuesday and home to Ridge Thursday.
Hunterdon Central: The Red Devils return three of the top four goal scorers from 2011--Paul Leonhauser with 32 goals and Chris Sawyer and Brian Rikenbach with 31 apiece--as well as the guy responsible for a good many of those shots, senior attackman Blake Searfoss. The steady playmaker recorded a state-leading 66 assists while also scoring 22 goals. Nick Tortoriello (15 goals) and Jack Schreck are expected to play bigger roles on offense this season. The Red Devils have an outstanding goalie in Rutgers-bound senior Jake Andersen and a solid defense led by Stephen Puleo.
Ridge: The Red Devils move up from Group 3 this season, but don't expect to have any problem adjusting. There is a core of talented veterans at every position, including the goal (junior T.J. Jones) and faceoffs (junior Alec Burckley). Senior Connor Meth (45 goals, 37 assists), who scored in all but two games last year, and sophomore J.T. Palladino (21 goals) spark the offense and senior Chris Catapano and junior Chris Palladino lead the defense. Junior middie Eric Scott knocked in 23 goals as a sophomore.
Montclair: With versatile playmaker Drew Nesmith (Marist) gone, the Mounties will have to bear down on defense and dig down for ground balls while the offense makes adjustments and finds new leaders. They certainly have one of those take-charge guys in goal. Jim Sestilio (UPenn) is a premier shot stopper and communicator, and he will be directing a solid unit led by Ed Adeogun and pole Bruce Bainbridge. Mike Colella (20 goals) returns to the attack and Ryan Cook and Cory Reynolds are experienced midfielders.
Hillsborough: Underappreciated somehow in Bridgewater-Raritan's journey to the T of C title was its tough Group 4 semifinal battle against these Raiders, 12-10. Hillsborough finished a very respectable 13-5 and was particularly good throughout May. A number of starters are back from that crew, including standout attackman Logan Panaccione, who missed the first 14 games last season with an injury. He'll be joined on the line by James Stravrakis, Matt Speciale and Connor Fitzgerald. Versatile John VonNessen heads up a solid midfield group. Senior Alex Malecki is back in goal.
South Brunswick: The Vikings do have questions to answer defensively with the graduation of goalie Kenny Keenan and several defenders, but talented Alex Lorber is back to faceoff and defend and a strong core of offensive regulars returns. Senior middie Dom Violante netted 43 goals and had eight assists last season. Jevon Tyree, Jim Mastronardi and Bruce Redfield all lend experience to the midfield. Dan Gorzynski and Colin Quigley pace the attack.
Howell: The Rebels lost significant firepower with the graduations of Rob Hart and Kevin Scott, but talented junior Alec Dambach (38 goals, 37 assists) is back to lead the attack, senior Elden Andrews returns to midfield and the Howell defensive unit is experienced and talented. Blasé DellaValle and James Bodeker anchor the close unit and Kevin Campfield will once again occupy the pole. If the defense can hold opponents down in the early weeks, this young offense may have time to build confidence.
Mike Kinney covers boys lacrosse for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS