No county or state championship has ever been decided by April 10--a point Chatham players were emphasizing profusely--but there is no evidence stating that the foundation for a title can't be established that early in the season.
It's quite possible that Chatham did just that Tuesday afternoon when it used a brilliant defensive effort led by goalie Corey Fritts and clutch scoring from Kyle Howard-Johnson and Thomas Guida to edge Delbarton, 5-4, in a bruising Fitch-Pitt Division battle in Chatham.
The Cougars, No. 5 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Power Rankings, improved to 5-0 by posting their first-ever victory over No. 4 Delbarton, whose very name has been synonymous with Garden State lacrosse royalty for over 20 years.
Guida snapped a 4-4 tie when he unloaded a shot from 16 yard out off a feed from behind by Howard-Johnson, and the Cougars' defense did its part by allowing only two shots over the final seven minutes.
The Green Wave fell to 1-3, though the other two losses were a 5-4, five-overtime game to No. 7 Ridgewood to open the season and a 10-9 nail-biter last Saturday against St. Anthony of Long Island, then the top-ranked team in the MSG Varsity Tri-State Top 20.
This Delbarton team is still very good and Chatham's accomplishment is significant.
"It's a huge confidence booster. This is a big win," Howard-Johnson said. "But after this, it would be easy to have a letdown next game. We just have to keep coming out every game, keep playing hard and have no letdowns."
A letdown of any degree could certainly put Chatham in a tough position Thursday against No. 8 Ridge in Basking Ridge. In this game, even the thought of a letdown was not an option for the Cougars. Delbarton is too good in too many areas to allow room for mistakes.
"We knew we had to possess the ball and tried to have the mindset to make good decisions," Chatham head coach Tony Calandra said. "We also felt taking the middies behind the cage would cut the transition off. And our defensive effort was tremendous, and really had to be."
Fritts rejected seven shots while close defenders Thomas Stephan, Will Weichert and Owen Hewes and pole Chris Peters executed impeccable team defense to limit Delbarton to four goals, and only one over the final 15:57.
"Their on-ball is amazing. Their team defense, though, is really the most impressive thing," Howard-Johnson said. "They talk well, they work well, the chemistry is amazing. They're all excellent individual defenders, but their team defense is what gets it done."
That's what Delbarton provided, too, with the defensive play of Will Reynolds, Brendan Huston, Kohl Geibel, Sean O'Keefe and pole Michael Bicknese. And their work--as well as the offense--was aided by the continuing faceoff mastery of junior Austin Williams, who won 11 of 12 draws.
That meant Chatham's defense had to constantly on guard against fast breaks off the faceoffs and call upon turnovers or saves by Fritts to return the ball to its offense.
It was partly through Williams' early success in the circle, as well as Delbarton's strong transition game, that Calandra decided upon a ball-control offense to eat up clock and keep the defenders moving.
"That's contrary to the style I like to play. I like to get going," Calandra said. "Defense is one of the strengths of our team, but we just felt the more we had the ball on offense, the better off we were going to be."
Chatham attempted only 17 shots, including five in the second half. Sam Carson opened a 4-2 lead 2:59 into the third quarter and Guida nailed his game-winner on just his fourth shot of the game.
"Kyle Howard-Johnson drew the big D to him; he's been shooting well all season," Guida said. "Everyone went to him and I was wide open."
Good reason to slough toward Howard-Johnson. The Tufts-bound senior entered with a team-high 10 goals and hit two game-changing shots in the final 2:11 of the first half to give the Cougars a 3-2 lead. He swept in a difficult underhand shot from 12 yards out off a feed by Matt Proto to knot the score at 2-2 and opened the lead with a rocket from 14 yards out off a pass by Guida.
"That was huge getting the momentum before halftime, going in and feeling really good up one," Howard-Johnson said. "And our defense was amazing. That's the best I've ever seen them play, in practice or games.
"Going up one goal at halftime doesn't seem like a lot, but with our defense it's a lot. It's a big difference going in one goal up or tied."
Delbarton closed to within 4-3 when junior middie Dillon Confalone scored on a sweep from the top of the box with 3:57 left in the third quarter, and tied it on a 10-yard sizzler by Confalone wth 8:27 remaining in the game. Guida answered only 1:14 later.
"I kind of took it behind and knew we could pull people down and then I could dump it over the top," Howard Johnson said. "Thomas was wide open, and he's been shooting well this year. He got hit right after the shot, too, but he saw it through the whole way."
Fritts was not giving Delbarton much of an opportunity to see shots through, whether unleashing from 15 yards away or right on the doorstep. He stuffed two dunk attempts early in the third quarter to preserve Chatham's lead.
"The doorstep's always a 50-50 thing, but when you get one it's a big save," Fritts said. "Especially when you can come up with a big rebound like that. That's what you're looking for."
Fritts said Chatham's defensive goal all season is to hold teams to six goals or fewer, and the objective was not adjusted for Delbarton.
"The fact that we kept them to four, especially a team like that with all the top names…but we have top defensemen, too," he said. "We can compete with anyone."
Chatham made that pretty clear when it defeated a high-powered St. Augustine team from South Jersey, 9-7, to open the season. It then coasted past West Essex, Madison and St. Peter's Prep in succession by a combined score of 27-11. But those wins don't compare to this milestone.
"That's the first time we beat them in Chatham history," Fritts said. "That's something no one can ever take away. Coach said that's going to stay with us awhile and set the tone for the rest of the year."
Mike Kinney covers boys lacrosse for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS