The Mountain Lakes players made it clear that they didn’t just want to win the final Tournament of Champions is boys lacrosse. They wanted to make a statement.
A statement that certified how talented they were, how hard they were willing to work for and with one another, and also how very important it was to show the NJSIAA that the Tournament of Champions is a viable platform that should not be dissolved because it gives Group 1 and 2 schools the opportunity to prove themselves as the premier teams in the Garden State.
This, however, was no mere statement generated by Mountain Lakes. This was a booming thunderclap that rattled some windows in the first quarter, kept rolling along over the next three and is probably still echoing in the valleys of the Watchung Mountains as we speak.
Mountain Lakes, ranked No. 1 in NJ.com but seeded third, forged a five-goal lead in the first quarter behind some creative dodging and shooting, and continued to build upon that advantage with strong, steady swipes on its way to a 21-5 victory over No. 5 and top-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven in the 18th and final TOC Monday afternoon at Ridge High in Basking Ridge.
“Yes, we wanted to make a statement. Our motto was ‘Last one, best one,’ and we wanted to make it just that,” senior attackman Reid Tietjen said. “It’s a shame this is the last TOC, but we wanted to end it on a great note.”
Senior middie Caz Kotsen struck for five goals, two in that first quarter, senior attackman Bradford Goodbar scored three goals and assisted on two, Tietjen contributed two goals and four assists, and brothers Justin and Jordan Hernando won a combined 26 of 29 faceoffs to send Mountain Lakes (22-1) to its fourth TOC title with a record number of goals that produced the most lopsided championship win in the platform’s history.
Previously, the widest margin of victory was accomplished by Delbarton with an 18-8 decision over Mountain Lakes in the 2006 final. The record for goals was 16, scored by Bridgewater-Raritan in its 16-13 shootout with Bergen Catholic in 2015.
Delbarton has won a record seven TOC crowns while Mountain Lakes now holds the mark among public schools with four. The Lakers and Bridgewater were tied with three trophies each.
This Mountain Lakes team was so on target and also so stifling on the opposite end of the field against one of the most feared offenses in New Jersey that it scored 16 goals before the third quarter was completed. Remarkably, the Lakers seized a 15-3 lead with 5:36 to go in that quarter to initiate a running clock, which takes effect once a team establishes a 12-goal lead in the second half.
“I don’t think anyone could have expected this with how good a team Rumson is, but we came out to play today,” Kotsen said. “I was so proud of my guys, so proud of my team for all the work we put in this past week. This was the result of that work, I guess. It was really amazing.”
Amazing is a word that has been associated with Kotsen in recent games after plunking down five goals in the semifinals against St. Augustine, 10-5, and collecting three goals and one assist in the quarterfinals against Rutgers Prep, 14-4.
But in this contest against Rumson-Fair Haven, there really wasn’t a single player on the field for Mountain Lakes that did not earn that adjective.
For instance, Ryan McLaughlin, Gavin Ananian, Nate Holiday, Lucas Sawransky and shortstick middies Ben Buzby, Oliver Bush and Marco Dzamba anchored a defense that held Rumson (22-5) to 9.3 goals below its per-game average. Senior goalie Jimmy Holda made four saves in the first half and junior Matt Sentowsky rejected four shots in the second half to support that hard-nosed defense.
At the other end of the turf, the Lakers painted a masterpiece with 21 goals on 37 shots, and with 12 players connecting at least once for a goal. Senior middie John Lane sank two of those goals and also assisted on one, and the Hernando brothers each scored once in transition directly off a won faceoff.
Rumson-Fair Haven was led by junior attackman Quinn Stankovits with two goals and senior middie Phil Passalaqua with one goal and one assist.
“This is a very strong and a great senior class. It’s a team with great leadership, the kids love one another, they come from great families, and they got better every day,” Mountain Lakes head coach Tim Flynn said. He has guided the Lakers to nine overall state championships (five before the TOC began in 2004) and now has 715 career victories, the most by far in state history.
“We practiced with 42 kids, and the last kid on the roster was giving his all every day in practice to make everyone a little bit better. A beautiful thing to see,” Flynn said.
Mountain Lakes had been building toward this spectacular sendoff since absorbing its only loss, 12-6, to then-No. 2 Don Bosco Prep on April 23. The Lakers outscored their five opponents in the Group 1 tournament 74-10, topped Rutgers Prep by 10 in the TOC quarters, but then ran into trouble against St. Augustine in the semis. Mountain Lakes led by one goal at the half, but pulled away after the break for that 10-5 win.
“We were saying all year long that we hadn’t played our best game yet. Good, but not our best,” Flynn said.
And now, coach?
“This is what you hope for as a coach; that your kids are going to put everything together at the most important time, and they did. Really, as a coaching staff, we just sat back in this game and watched. We didn’t do much coaching because we just didn’t have to.”
Schuckman sank the opening goal of the game with a lefthanded bouncer from 16 yards out with 6:36 to go in the first quarter. Kotsen then sank back-to-back goals off impressive dodges for a three-goal lead with 3:32 left in the period. Jordan Hernando struck just six seconds later when he won the faceoff and sprinted down the middle of the box and fired away. Jimmy Elliot made it a five-goal game with 1:32 to go.
Rumson-Fair Haven showed both the determination and the shooting skills that led it to the program’s second state title by sinking the first two goals of the second quarter – Passalaqua and then Stankovits – to cut the deficit to three.
Kotsen scored his third goal when he slipped trying to dodge a defender, sprang to his feet and delivered a rocket from 14 yards out for a 6-2 lead with 2:36 left in the half. Christian Bockelmann scored off a pass from Passalaqua to make it 6-3 with 1:43 to go.
At that point, it seemed as if Rumson had ironed away its early miscues and found its balance. And then Mountain Lakes ended that quarter with a three-goal spree in just 16 seconds to carry a 9-3 lead into the second half. Buzby launched it when it trucked the ball across midfield and scored unsettled, and then Tietjen and Goodbar followed.
“We’ve got six offensive guys on the field at all times that can score. That’s hats off to the offense. They do their jobs better than anyone else in the state,” McLaughlin said.
Of course, that offense has to try finding shots each practice against McLaughlin and his tenacious group. It can be very frustrating at times for the shooters, though it is also a constant exercise in skill sharpening.
The Laker defense was in general outstanding, and McLaughlin, a UPenn commit, was especially effective, holding his man without a goal or assist.
Looking to make that statement, Mr. McLaughlin?
“Of course we were. We were looking to make a statement when they put us as the three seed int the TOC,” he said. “We’re the underdogs in a lot of circumstances and we wanted to prove everyone wrong today.”
Next year, Mountain Lakes would be far less likely to carry underdog status into the tournament since it will stop cold after the Group 1 final. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Executive Committee voted overwhelmingly last December to end the TOC format after this school year, essentially so sports can extend their regular seasons and teams can have more practice time in between sport seasons.
“I hate it. This tournament is Group 1 against Group 2 and that shows that anyone can be in it, anyone can win it. It would have been a shame to me if my season had ended three days ago,” Kotsen said.
“It’s a travesty, and you can quote me on that,” Flynn said. “Group 1 and Group 2 and it’s their (Rumson) first time here. You don’t think they want to come back? You don’t think we want to come back?
“Lacrosse has always been down to one on the field and it’s a beautiful thing. There are other sates that are jealous. They are jealous because we do that and no one else does,” Flynn said. “Nobody runs, nobody hides, you’ve got to play.”
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Mike Kinney can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeKinneyHS.