The Hunterdon Central game plan against Chatham read like an old primer on the advantages of fundamental lacrosse.
To paraphrase, but only slightly: Covet possessions, shoot judiciously, dedicate yourselves to a tough man-to-man defense.
"We stressed possession, having more understanding of ball control," Red Devils head coach Mike Vergalito said. "And we did a pretty good job in our man defense.
"We allowed them to move the ball a little too much early in the game, but we improved. We wanted to press them, make them uncomfortable, and I thought we did that pretty well late in the game."
Those latter stages of the contest all but belonged to Hunterdon Central, which got two fourth-quarter goals from Blake Searfoss, outstanding faceoff work by Tyler Reasoner and suffocating defense all around to rally to a 7-5 win Saturday afternoon in Chatham.
Searfoss finished with three goals and one assist, fellow senior attackman Chris Sawyer added two goals and one assist and senior goalie Jake Andersen stopped seven shots to send the Red Devils (11-2), No. 6 in the MSG Varsity Power Rankings, to their fourth straight victory. Reasoner won 7 of 8 faceoffs in the closing half after Chatham claimed 6 of 11 in the first.
Ninth-ranked Chatham (9-6) lost its third consecutive game, and its fifth this season by two goals or fewer.
"We've run into some very good teams and this was one of them," Chatham head coach Tony Calandra said. "I thought we did a real good job here for three quarters, but we let down a little bit in the fourth quarter."
Or, Hunterdon Central simply refused to let the Cougars get back up once it seized momentum.
"We just had to keep playing how we play and we're a second-half team mainly," junior defenseman Shane Taggert said. He teamed up with Stephen Puleo, Nick Soriano, John Pipas and poles Patrick O'Donoghue and Mike Brown to limit Chatham to 11 shots in the second half after yielding 18 in the first 24 minutes.
"We took their skip passes away, did a better job of sagging; the kids just responded," Vergalito said. His team customarily mixes a good deal of zone with its man schemes, but decided to dispatch straight man to combat Chatham's legion of fine shooters. Shorties Reasoner, Nick Tortoriello and Paul Leonhauser also contributed greatly to the defensive effort.
"The objective was mainly to play on their hands, play smart, position defense," Taggert said. "They have some great shooters on that team and fast midfielders. We had to play with our feet and take away that open green."
Chatham adjusted well in the second quarter to Hunterdon Central's surprising defensive approach, grabbing a 3-2 lead on single goals by David Gill and Matt Proto. Central knotted the game at 3-3 when Sawyer connected off a fabulous dodge low in the box 3:56 into the third quarter, but Chatham regained the lead, 5-3, with a 12-yard laser by Kyle Howard-Johnson with 5:21 left and a nine-yard scorcher by Proto off a tight feed from Howard-Johnson with 1:39 left.
Chatham seemed to be back in control until a turnover in the final ticks of the period found its way in the stick of Searfoss, one of the state's top assist men with 41 in the first 12 games. Sawyer cut to open space in front of the cage, caught his teammate's feed and stuffed it with :01 left to make it a 5-4 game.
"That's a huge goal by Chris and great recognition," Taggert said. "He's been doing that all year."
"It was huge," Searfoss said. "Just to get a little dagger right before the end of the third. Now, we're only down by one instead of two. That gave us momentum entering the fourth, and that really helped us out."
Searfoss converted a feed by Tortoriello 55 seconds into the fourth to tie the game at 5-5, and provided the lead 3:54 later with a sizzling shot from the far left alley off a pass by Ryan Dunleavey. That gave the generous Searfoss his first three-goal game this season.
"I just think we got more patient with the ball," Searfoss said. "You can't let a team like Chatham possess the ball because eventually they'll score. We had to keep working the ball around and wait for opportunities to open up."
Hunterdon Central's deliberate pace helped it control possession for more than seven minutes and forge a 2-1 lead in the first quarter.
Searfoss netted the first goal 1:33 into the game off a pass by Keegan Hickey, and Hickey connected on an extra-man opportunity 4:26 later off a feed by Zack Schreck. Howard-Johnson netted his first of two goals with 3:00 left to pull Chatham to within 2-1. That was only the Cougars' fourth shot of the period.
"We thought they'd play a zone, but didn't and we had to adjust," Calandra said. "After awhile we moved the ball pretty nicely. Had 26, 27 shots, we just didn't put enough in the goal. That was really the difference."
Mike Kinney covers boys lacrosse for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS