Where does Bridgewater-Raritan stack up all-time in New Jersey?
The question was asked frequently throughout the season and even more incessantly almost as soon as Bridgewater-Raritan had reached perfection with its 11-5 victory over Delbarton last Saturday for the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions crown.
Is this one of the best lacrosse teams ever to play in the Garden State? Did Scott Bieda, Ryan Hollingsworth, Ray Mastroianni, Vince Colatriano, Zack Jones, John Longordo, Evan Mock and the rest of the Panthers stack up with the other great teams in New Jersey?
Of course they did. The 21-0 record confirms Bridgewater's prestigious place in history, as do its rather astonishing statistics of 13.09 goals scored and 3.9 goals allowed per game. That 9.19 goal differential ranks the Panthers among the most overpowering teams to ever take the field in the Garden State.
In finishing 21-0, the Panthers snapped up their second consecutive T of C title and, in the process, stretched their winning streak to 36 games--fourth best ever in NJ. Undefeated is a rarefied status no matter what anyone's full criteria for greatness may be. You really must start your analyses with the fact that no one in this team's path proved to be its equal, and then feel free to proceed from there.
Nine teams previously finished undefeated since the inception of the NJSIAA state tournament in 1974, and three came from Lawrenceville and one from Peddie, which allow post-graduates to play and can draw their personnel from an almost unlimited base. Only six public school teams have attained perfection over the past 39 seasons, with Bridgewater (19-0 in 1998) being the only program to do it twice.
This is not to suggest one bit that teams without unbeaten records do not belong in this discussion. The only thing keeping the 21-1 Mountain Lakes team of 1995 or the once-beaten Delbarton teams of '03 and '04 from going undefeated was one another. These stellar clubs battled each other two or three times in those seasons and were both too talented and well-coached to succumb every time. Either one of these three state championship clubs would match up favorably with the undefeated teams.
The 19-1 Westfield team of '87--led by middies Gregg Schmalz, Steve Locker and a host of future Division 1 players--and the 20-1 Montclair team of '97--with the brilliant scoring tandem of Matt Trevenen and Anthony Perna--also were outstanding outfits deserving of special praise. Westfield lost a one-goal game to Bridgewater East, though avenged that in the state championship game. Montclair fell to Delbarton, 10-8, but snapped Mountain Lakes' winning streak at 41 games and posted two wins over both the Lakers and Bridgewater.
Still, undefeated, as we said, is its own unique category. There are no what-ifs?, how-comes? or if-onlys attached to a whatever-and-zero ledger. You saw, you conquered, you got to march along the pantheon of heroes with your armor intact and shining brightly.
As we saw by that nine-plus goal differential, Bridgewater did not tip-toe around opponents. And those wide margins of victory stood no matter whom the Panthers played. Remove that one aberration from the discussion--the triple-overtime victory against Ridgewood in the T of C semifinals-- and we see the Panthers' season is a highlight reel of lopsided dominance over a number of reputable squads.
And for anyone who would care to raise that tight Ridgewood game as a sign of the Panthers' vulnerability, I offer this thought: it was more validation of the skill level of Ridgewood goalie Noah Pounds than a sign of Bridgewater shortcomings. The Panthers had numerous quality shots in that 8-7 victory, Pounds just happened to stop 16 of them.
So, is Bridgewater the best ever? Second best? third? Where exactly on the list do these Panthers fit?
Well, now, pinpointing this team's--any team's--absolute degree of excellence is a challenge that probably exceeds my abilities and undermines my nature. I've been covering this fine sport for 29 years, which only means I've seen a lot, not necessarily observed it all accurately and insightfully. I also still find it a little difficult to attach definitive labels upon high school athletes, even if some of those athletes I speak of are now 45, 46 years old (sorry, fellows).
That being said, I am convinced this team could hold its own against the 19-0 Ridgewood squad of 1991, the 21-0 Mountain Lakes team of '96 or the 23-0 Summit club of just two seasons ago. There is also that '98 Bridgewater outfit to consider now, isn't there?
Of course there is. That was an athletic, highly experienced bunch--led by All-Americans Phil Schambach and Anatole Wedmid--who stood up to an extremely competitive schedule consisting of Pitt (including Lawrenceville), Fitch and Gibbs division powers.
They were forced to survive many more close battles than the 2012 group, but got through with tremendous balance (Schambach and fellow attackmen Ryan Eichner and Matt Cordivari each finished with 68 points), solid faceoff work from Guy Budinscak and very stubborn defense. The first midfield line of Mike Schambach, Phil's twin, Brian Brady and Greg Bartolotta were not as potent offensively as Mastroianni, Longordo and Mike Serrante, but they did provide versatility and resourcefulness.
But I've spoken with Bridgewater coaches and even players from that '98 squad, and all agree that the 2012 team is better, if only for its offensive prowess. The ball movement this season was head-spinning whenever the Panthers found their groove. And with the ample opportunities for possession provided by the fine faceoff work of Colatriano, those moments came often.
This Bridgewater offense was so good, in fact, that its depth, quickness and scoring aptitude made it very easy to overlook the substantial talents of the team's other components, such as the goalkeeping of Jones, the stingy defensive play of Mock, Connor Murphy, Andrew Hengenmuhle and long pole Jared Kaden and the very underrated versatility of shortstick middie Steve Danyluk.
Just how deep and well-balanced were these Panthers? Consider these points:
The Manhattan-bound Bieda--who recorded 60 goals, 47 assists to become the program's first player to produce 100 points in a season--was held to one assist in the Group 4 final against Hunterdon Central, yet his team rolled to a seven-goal lead by halftime and won, 10-5. Bieda had one goal in that stirring T of C semifinal game against Ridgewood, but Mastroianni and Longordo stepped up with two goals apiece as Bridgewater scored eight goals--tying, by the way, a season low for goals.
Once again, a season-low eight goals. There are teams that would love to call that their average.
Hollingsworth, headed for Rutgers, scored 52 goals and had 38 assists for 90 points, which made him a shutoff target in a number of games instead of Bieda. Hollingsworth went four games this season without a goal, in fact, yet his Panthers breezed along without a hiccup, averaging 10.25 in those outings.
OK, now, how about those other three undefeated public school powers?
Ridgewood and Summit flaunted two of the best defensive squads that ever competed. Ridgewood allowed 2.94 goals a game behind the play of Dan Sargen, Dennis Sullivan and goalie Marc Jacobson and Summit an incredible 2.3 with a fabulous zone defense led by Bobby Lawrence, Joe Jaskolski, Jules Godino and goalie Brian Feeney.
Mountain Lakes was a remarkably balanced unit with firepower, defensive prowess and goalie Matt Breslin, one of the best keepers ever to emerge from this state. So was Summit's Feeney. Jacobson was smart and steady in the cage and particularly effective in clutch situations.
But when I think about any of those teams having to confront this explosive-yet-smart, incredibly skilled-though-unselfish Bridgewater offense, I imagine a lot of sleepless nights for coaches Steve Jacobson of Ridgewood, Tim Flynn of Mountain Lakes and Jim Davidson of Summit.
It's not just the individual talent that distinguishes Bridgewater, for all excellent teams have star power and all top-notch teams also have defenses good enough to combat opponents with one or two dangerous scorers.
We already pointed out the strong numbers produced by Bieda and Hollingsworth, but failed to recognize the 25 goals, 22 assists by fellow attackman Justin Higgins. Midfielders Mastroianni and Longordo combined for 71 goals and also 35 assists and were both exceptional weapons throughout the state tournament. The Panthers produced six players with at least 20 goals and five with at least 15 assists.
This was an offense rich with speed, dodging ability and shot velocity. But the objective was never to flaunt those assets with flashy one-on-one moves with defenders, but rather create one-on-one shot opportunities against the goalie through back-side movement and ball-sharing, and save the other stuff for a crisis. "One more pass" was the essential phrase this team lived by.
Quite a few people have sited Bridgewater's schedule as a mark against their legacy. The Panthers no longer play Lawrenceville and did not play regular-season games against Long Island opponents, as did Delbarton, Ridgewood, Mountain Lakes, Summit and others.
But, Bridgewater, No. 4 in the final MSG Varsity Tri-State Top 20, did scrimmage and held their own against undefeated and No. 1 Garden City and handled No. 8 Shoreham-Wading River rather handedly. It also posted an 11-5 win over a Delbarton club that lost only 10-9 to No. 3 St. Anthony's and 5-3 to No. 5 Chaminade.
Have I waffled enough without confirming Bridgewater's ultimate place in history? Not quite, because there is also dizzying evolution of the sport in this state to consider before we start affixing labels.
The abundance of winter leagues, elite travel programs and specialized coaching now available make it almost unfair to compare a 2012 team with one from 20, 15, even 10 years ago. The astounding growth and popularity of lacrosse in that time also begun to attract many of the best athletes to the game, just as it has for many, many years on Long Island, upstate New York and Maryland. That was rarely the case in NJ in the '1980s and '90s, save for select pockets of Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties.
There's no doubt that the best players of 15, 20, 25 years ago would still be among the supreme performers today: Rob Schmaltz of Westfield would still be scoring in large swaths, Eric Waltz of Mountain Lakes would still be a nightmare for opposing faceoff men, Eric Benedict of Ridgewood would be leading countless fast breaks, Reid Jackson of St. Joseph would be blocking you access to the cage and Trevenen of Montclair would still be handing out assists as if the ball were outfitted with a GPS to all open teammates in the crease.
So, the best players may not be much different than their predecessors a generation ago, but the second-tier guys, even the backups are undeniably different. There are third attackmen now who would dazzle a lot of top defensemen of those days, defensive midfielders with the stick skills of high-scoring 1980's attackmen and second-string goalies who would have been good enough to make all-conference when their dads or uncles played.
Those dodges that are now being executed--and, yes, defended-- and those shots being unleashed--are coming from bigger, stronger athletes, faster athletes in a general sense. There are things I might see two, three times in one single game now that I may have witnessed once in two or three weeks just two decades ago.
This Bridgewater squad is indeed of the best ever. But where? I think maybe I'll see how the sport further evolves over the next 20 years and then try to decide.
Mike Kinney covers boys lacrosse for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS