Rutgers Prep defeats Bernards in tourney
Rutgers Prep fields an offense that is so young, its best days may be too far beyond the horizon to even reasonably imagine, let alone see.
And yet these youngsters opened play in the Somerset County Tournament with a sense of purpose and urgency that suggested a clock winding down on their high school careers, not one that's barely even been set.
Junior midfielder Donald Stephan--by far the elder statesman of this game's scoring force--erupted for three goals and two assists, frosh attackman Evan Lombardo netted four goals and fellow freshmen Thomas Smith and Jack Vajda combined for eight points to lead eighth-seeded Rutgers Prep to a 13-3 win over ninth-seeded Bernards in the first round of the Somerset County Tournament Monday afternoon in Somerset.
"We're starting next year early," Stephan said after directing an offense that turned in its crispest performance this season. It was patient at most times, up-tempo only when transition opportunities clearly presented themselves and extremely accurate at either speed.
The Argonauts (9-4) plunked down eight goals on only 14 shots to forge an 8-0 lead at the half and were a tidy 13 of 25 for the game. Bernards (11-5) attempted only three fewer shots, but had 11 turned away by another precocious freshman, goalie Christian Klipstein.
"The offense really moved the ball so well. It's the best I've seen them play all season," midfielder Cody Epps said.
He is the team's only senior starter now with defenseman Reaves Klipstein out with an injury and pole Bobby Ferro sidelined all season after surgery in January to remove a brain tumor.
Epps, a standout 182-pound wrestler last winter, was a bull in the circle, helping the Argonauts win 12 of 18 faceoffs to launch his squad's many quality possessions.
"It caught my eye how well they worked the ball down there," Epps said. "It showed how much they care how hard I work on the faceoffs. But that's how we are. We all work together. We respect each other and we won't ever give up on each other."
An important trait now that Rutgers Prep finds itself matched up against top-seeded and undefeated Bridgewater-Raritan, No. 1 in the MSG Varsity Power Rankings, Wednesday in the SCT quarterfinals in Bridgewater.
When they squared off in the regular season April 9, the game was tied, 5-5, in the third quarter before Bridgewater pulled away for a 12-5 victory. Bridgewater also escaped a major upset against the Argonauts last year with a 6-5 overtime win in the SCT semifinals.
"We're so excited to see them again, and I know the coaches are, too," Epps said. "We had them so close last year and we had them awhile this year. We're coming for them."
Quenault would sure love to arrive in Bridgewater with at least some semblance of the well-conceived offense that ripped through a very good Bernards squad.
"We haven't shot this well all year. We haven't possessed the ball this well all year, but this is a good time to be doing this," Quenault said. "If you're going to win the tournament, you've got to play Bridgewater at some point, right? It might as well be now."
Lombardo got things started with his first of four goals on an extra-man opportunity 2:14 into the game, and Smith opened a 2-0 lead in the final seconds of that quarter off a ground ball in the middle of the box. Smith finished with two goals and three assists to match his career high for points with five.
Stephan took charge of the action 3:45 in the second quarter by unloading a running bouncer from 12 yards away on a sweep from the top of the box for a 3-0 lead. He sank almost identical goals back-to-back over the final 2:36 of the half for an 8-0 advantage. Smith, Vajda and Jordan Kaplan, yet another freshman, also scored in the period to create the surprisingly wide gap.
"I think we're coming together as a team here," Stephan said. "The offense is clicking at the end of the season. We're young, so we're still learning how our sticks are and how to find each other."
Bernards finally reached Klipstein when junior attackman Griffin Connor scored his first of two goals unassisted 2:10 into the third quarter to cut the deficit to 8-1. But Rutgers Prep knocked through four goals in the last 8:11 of the period, two by Lombardo, to build a 12-1 advantage.
"The freshmen all know how to play, and we played all through the fall and winter and went to Florida in the preseason. That brought us together," Stephan said. "Early in the season we did have to figure some things out; there's a lot of stuff you have to learn. But there's only one way to really learn: keep playing."
To its credit, Bernards did exactly that despite the huge hole it had dug. The Mountaineers were even on faceoffs in the second half, 5-5, and also won the ground ball battle after in the last two quarters, 18-14.
"They're a good team, but Cody won faceoffs early and we didn't throw the ball away. That's been a problem sometimes," Quenault said.
"Maybe that's because we just practiced every day last week. We were working them hard and holding them liable for their mistakes. You drop a ball, you run in practice. After two days of that they decided, 'If I just focus a little bit more, I won't have to run.' It took us all year to figure that out."
Mike Kinney covers boys lacrosse for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS