In football and basketball, the non-public schools generally rule the landscape in New Jersey. And while Delbarton surely enjoyed a lengthy run of supremacy at the start of the 21st century--seven overall crowns in a dizzying eight-year span--the public schools have been on top of the lacrosse scene in recent years.
Ridge ran the public schools' Tournament of Champions title streak to seven last June when it rallied in the second half to edge Don Bosco Prep, 8-7, in the final. Fellow Skyland Conference member Bridgewater-Raritan won the T of C the previous two years, and the Panthers had followed the two-year reigns of Summit in 2009 and '10 and Mountain Lakes in '07 and '08.
Ridge graduated a good many talented players from that 20-3 team, including its starting close defense and goalie T.J. Jones, but there is enough returning offensive firepower and depth to believe the Red Devils can pull a repeat. They will begin the 2014 where they left off in '13, as the state's No. 1 team.
Here are the preseason picks for state champions, group by group. As you will see, the predictions are not terribly daring. Almost all of the reigning champions return with enough veteran talent to still be considered at least a heavy probable to repeat. Until proven otherwise, then, they will most likely be picked as favorites.
2013 champion: Ridge over Southern.
2014 pick: Ridge
Teams to watch: Hunterdon Central, Westfield, Bridgewater-Raritan, Montclair, Old Bridge, Southern.
The Red Devils have some major rebuilding to conduct defensively with the departures of Chris Palladino, Brian Mangion and Mitchell Gray, but should also have the offensive might to outlast most opponents in a shootout. Senior JT Palladino compiled 90 points last year; he is back to lead the attack, while returning middies Kevin Quigley, Alex Gaydos and Sean O'Brien combined to score 48 goals a season ago, 27 of them from Quigley.
Senior Owen Molloy was a talented attackman last season (44 goals), but he was really just biding his time until Jones graduated. Molloy, a Notre Dame recruit, will be back at his best position, goalie, this season to lead a tough but inexperienced close defense. Liam Derkasch and Connor Lalley were both steady poles for Ridge last season. They will be key members of the defensive units this spring.
Ridge will not have to look far to find challenging tests from other Group 4 teams throughout the season. Its Skyland Conference is, once again, the home office of Group 4 might with Hunterdon Central, Bridgewater-Raritan and upstart Watchung Hills among its ranks.
2013 champion: Ridgewood over Shawnee
2014 pick: Ridgewood
Teams to watch: West Morris, Shawnee, Moorestown, Mendham, Millburn, Jackson Mem., Colts Neck.
The Maroons have won the last two Group 3 titles and four of the last six. Yes, Ridgewood graduated one of the state's top goalies of the last 10 years, Noah Pounds, and key players at other positions, but this is a powerhouse program that replenishes its weapons like few others in New Jersey. The brutal schedule Ridgewood plays can be rough on the regular-season record sometimes, but the perfect prescription for post-season success.
There will be plenty of competition for this trophy later this season; Moorestown has the talented Handlan brothers, Mike and Brendan, and other veterans back from a 16-3 team. West Morris, which fell to Ridgewood in the North Jersey final last year, is back with Matt Pruss, Jeremy Angle, Matt Carfaro and several other experienced scorers. Shawnee, as usual, will be a force out of South Jersey.
Ridgewood returns its starting attack with Owen Smith, Andrew Seiter and Matt Shippee, and also has veteran middie Alex Linton and defenseman Dan Hurley back to occupy starting roles. Jack Cardew takes over for Pounds in the cage.
2013 champion: Chatham over Somerville
2014 pick: Chatham
Teams to watch: Summit, Somerville, Northern Highlands, Sparta, Seneca.
This is an extremely close one to call between Chatham and Summit, but the Cougars get the nod with four-year starters Thomas Guida and David Gill back to spark the offense. They were major figures behind Chatham's state title last year--Guida scored 42 goals and Gill had 22 goals, 15 assists--and rank among the top two senior middies in the region. Guida is committed to Johns Hopkins and Gill to Duke.
Chatham has other returning talent, as well, with close defender Dan Winschuh and pole Nick Hill back to anchor the defense. Scott Lynch and Connor Sardini were reliable shortstick defenders and expect to fill even bigger roles this season.
Middies Matt Fischetti, Brian Hadley, Chris Zanelli and John Cordrey will be leading the way for Summit, which defeated Chatham, 9-2, in their regular-season clash last year, but fell, 4-3, in the North Jersey final.
2013 champion: Mountain Lakes over Rumson
2014 pick: Mountain Lakes
Teams to watch: Rumson, Glen Ridge, Bernards, Madison, Haddonfield, Kinnelon.
The offense last year was led by Christian Cuccinello, who netted a team-high 42 goals, including 11 during the state tournament and T of C. The senior attackman, committed to Villanova, returns to power an offense with solid experience. Juniors Brad Smith and Zander Kotsen will assist Cuccinello on attack while seniors Chris Sammarro (25 goals) and Zach (18) and Rich Lesko steer the midfield.
As usual, the Lakers are well-armed defensively with size, experience and depth. Manhattan-bound Jack Siddron, John spagnola and T.J. Jobes will protect the crease for senior goalie Paul Kimmelmam.
Rumson-Haven has a new coach (Andy Eastwood replaces 2012 Coach of the Year Reid Jackson, who has moved to North Carolina), but much of the same talent that led the Bulldogs to an 18-3 record and to a Group 1 championship meeting with Mountain Lakes. Chris Sutphen and Colin Shea spearhead a dangerous attack and J.T. Jennings, Dylan Zohn and Connor Phillips anchor an experienced defense.
2013 champion: Don Bosco Prep over Seton Hall Prep
2014 pick: Delbarton
Teams to watch: Bergen Catholic, Seton Hall Prep, Don Bosco Prep, St. Augustine, Christian Brothers, St. Joseph (Met.).
Delbarton did lose a good many seniors, including faceoff specialist Austin Williams, but had an en exceptional junior class eagerly awaiting an opportunity to take the reins. The Green Wave opened the 2013 season with 17 straight wins, but were stunned by Seton Hall, 10-8, in the Non-Public A semifinals.
Jordan Dowiak, who possesses a blistering shot, J.J. McBride, Robbie Arancio lead a versatile midfield while Conor Mackie leads the attack. Chad Otterman, Peter Welch, M.J. Melillo and 2013 shortie Matt Oplinger anchor what should once again be a stifling defensive unit.
Don Bosco Prep returns with several top-flight defenders from the '13 championship squad, like Greg Pandise, Andy Stefany and Daniel Johnson, but heavy graduation losses were felt on the other side of the field. Talented middie Mike D'Alessandro s back to help the O after missing most of 2013 with a knee injury, but many of the other spots are occupied by newcomers.
Everyone in this section will be keeping a wary eye on Bergen Catholic, which returns the bulk of its starting lineup from a 12-5 team that reached the Non-Public A semifinals. Mike Reilly, Chris Blewitt and Matt Haemmerle spark a proven offense and Robbie Williams and Kurt Holuba lead the defense.
2013 champion: Rutgers Prep over Immaculata
2014 pick: Immaculata
Teams to watch: Rutgers Prep, DePaul, Morristown-Beard, Montclair Kimberley, Pingry.
Rutgers Prep does return numerous starters from its championship squad, including the entire attack, but also graduated all-round sparkplug Donald Stephan--a stellar faceoff man and prolific scorer--and defenders Ryan Dennis and R.J. Morrison. Also, dazzling freshman pole Breein Tyree transferred to St. Joseph of Metuchen.
Immaculata, on the other hand, has almost its entire team intact, one that fell to Rutgers Prep, 6-3, in the state final. This group seems determined to return the Spartans to top of the group after a two-year absence.
Senior twins Connor and Chandler Vanderbeek, each a four-year starter, sets the tempo for his team from their midfield spots. Connor faces off and both score (a combined 78 goals last year), defend and consume ground balls rapaciously. Their younger brother Griffin, also a middie, fellow middie Jacob Van Leenen and attackmen Mark Swintek and Wyatt Agaisse will contribute to an experienced offense.
Jordan VanLeenen, Sal Fama and Christian Pung are back on defense for the Spartans, who also return goalie Joe Riccadonna.