In Wednesday night’s Shore Conference Tournament championship game at St. John Vianney, the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School (RFH) boys lacrosse team confirmed what everyone knew all along.
The Bulldogs are by far the best team in the Shore Conference this spring.
Top-seeded RFH rolled to a 12-3 win over second-seeded Jackson Memorial in a game that was delayed by inclement weather to win its first SCT title since 2007 and the second in program history since the tournament’s inception in 2005. It capped a dominant season against local competition. RFH (16-4) was playing in its third straight SCT final after losses to Christian Brothers Academy and Red Bank Catholic in the last two seasons, and finally sealed the deal.
"It feels fantastic," said RFH head coach Jim Barbiere. "The past two years were tough, but one thing we focused on is that we have the strength as a program to be here every year. But that being said, it's a lot better when you win the big game."
"The last two years have been pretty heartbreaking," said senior defender Matt Gilbertson. "This year we knew we had it. We had a senior-laden class and a lot of hype, but we didn't want to be brought down by the hype in this game. We knew if we played our game, stayed calm and worked the ball, there's no one in the Shore that can beat us."
RFH did not lose to a Shore Conference opponent all season, picking up its second win over Jackson Memorial after having beaten the Jaguars (15-3) by five goals during the regular season. The Bulldogs also denied Jackson its shot at history, as the Jaguars were gunning to become the first Ocean County team to ever win the SCT after having already become the first team from Ocean County to even reach the championship game.
Jackson was also playing with the inspiration of senior James Volpe, an outfielder on the baseball team who died in a car crash on May 13, resulting in the tournament being postponed from its originally scheduled dates.
"I'm not going to say we put a lot of pressure on (winning the SCT), but it's been in the players’ minds,’’ Barbiere said. “They've been fantastic in motivating themselves, and the seniors in particular have been very focused and motivated. They really took over the game, and we had guys making plays all over the field."
The lead ballooned to as much as 11-1 early in the fourth quarter, as junior attackman Jack Curran (four goals) and sophomore attack Michael Clarke (three goals) led a formidable offense while Gilbertson, a Dartmouth recruit, and Cornell-bound senior midfielder Mike Huttner spearheaded a defense that stifled Jackson’s array of scorers.
RFH had a 1-0 lead just 35 seconds into the game and never relinquished it following an unassisted goal by senior midfielder Ian Moore. Senior midfielder Matt Douty and Curran scored for a 3-0 first-quarter lead to immediately put Jackson on its heels.
"Coach always says, ‘Try and punch them in the nose early and get their eyes teary so they can't come back,’ and that's exactly what we did," Huttner said. "We came out firing, and I feel like they just couldn't keep up."
A Bulldogs team that had usually waited until the third quarter to blitz teams during the regular season was sharp from the outset thanks to an emphasis on winning faceoffs and keeping Jackson off the scoreboard early on.
"One advantage we had from playing them the first time was that we saw when they would isolate a shortie from the ‘X,’ we would go into a zone from the top side," Gilbertson said. "But they are so good at cutting, by the time we saw the cutter it was too late. This time we went man-to-man. We let up one goal off it but we'll take that as opposed to them going to it over and over against our zone."
With RFH leading 3-0 with 4:40 remaining in the first quarter, heavy rain and lightning delayed the game for an hour. That did not slow down the Bulldogs, as Clarke came right back to score two quick goals once play resumed for a 5-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
"There wasn't a time in the game where I thought we were going to lose," Huttner said. "We came out on fire. With the rain delay I thought it might set us back a little, but we came back out and kept pumping them in."
Clarke scored his third goal of the first half on an assist by senior attack Beau Bennardo and then pushed the lead to 8-1 with two more goals before halftime.
"They played very well, and they did neutralize some things we wanted to do," said Jaguars head coach Nick Caruso. "The key was we put the ball on the ground today and couldn't get going in transition. We weren't very good on ground balls today and that's usually our thing. At 3-0 we still were in it because we know we can score fast, but they were so good on ground balls that anytime a ball hit the ground there were four purple jerseys around it, and we weren't able to capitalize on anything."
Some nice saves by RFH junior goalie Artie Tildesley kept Jackson at bay in the third quarter, and Michael Rowland scored off a pass by Ben Albainy for a 9-1 Bulldogs lead heading into the final period.
"Artie Tildesley was lights out," Barbiere said. "Especially early as you're trying to establish dominance and dictate the flow of the game, a couple saves early on really go a long way to helping a team out."
Curran and Douty each scored just 1:50 into the fourth quarter for a 10-goal lead, and the rest was simply a coronation of the Shore’s best team. P.J. Maher added one final score with 1:18 left in the game to cap an impressive effort and return RFH to the top of the Shore Conference boys lacrosse landscape.
The only hard part for RFH and its large senior class was the realization that its brilliant run had come to an end.
"It's hard to realize this is the last game with guys you've been playing with for seven, eight years," Gilbertson said. "I never wanted to be complacent just because I'm going to play at the college level. No matter what you say about high school sports - you can say they're insignificant in the long run - but this was so special to us because we've wanted it for so long."