Hopewell Valley wins Mercer boys lax title
Part of Hopewell Valley's success during this journey through unchartered grounds has been its ability to travel step-by-step without letting big, desirable goals to block its way.
Teenagers, though, will occasionally wander from the intended plan, and senior defenseman Sean Kley admitted to moments of distraction when he has stood his school's gymnasium recently.
But Kley wasn't just thinking a game or two ahead as he pondered his team's tournament destination. It was more like 20, 30 years.
"The last couple of weeks we've been looking at the banners in the gym. Lacrosse doesn't have that much, and I thought how great it would be if we did," he said. "Now we're going to get our first one. Now when I come back for my reunion, I'll see that and I'll remember it forever."
The performance of Kley and the rest of his defense was worth remembering for years to come.
Taggart Whittaker scored two goals and Ryan Mahn and Mike Birkhofer each contributed one goal and two assists, but it was the play of the defense and goalie Kyle Hoehn that truly sparkled in Hopewell Valley's 6-2 win over Princeton Day for its first Mercer County Tournament championship Saturday at Princeton High.
That defense allowed only 13 shots and forced Hoehn to make only five saves (most not terribly challenging) as top-seeded Hopewell Valley (18-2) claimed its 10th straight victory and a permanent place of distinction on the gym wall.
"We have a ton of faith in our defense. They were great," Mahn said of close defenders Kley, Murf Butler and Drew LaPointe, pole Matt Pagano and shorties Kyle Higgins and Matt Royer.
"Kyle Hoehn is a brick wall," Mahn said. "He controls the whole defense. He's loud and he makes sure everyone is where they're supposed to be."
That meant being exactly where Princeton Day shooters did not want them.
When a shooter spun to his strong side, a Hopewell defender was constantly on his hip. When he dodged toward the goal, the slide came abruptly and authoritatively; and when shots were attempted, they were often lifted out of harm's way with smart, effective checks.
"I've told our goalies for almost 10 years here, your job is to limit shots," Hopewell head coach Rob Siris said. " Sometimes we think their job is to make a lot of saves. It took awhile for the goalies to learn that, but you've really done your job when you’re not seeing shots."
Job well done by Hoehn. Seventh-seeded Princeton Day (10-7) was outshot, 10-2, in first quarter and managed only three more shots in the second, one on an outstanding catch-and-finish four yards in front of the cage by Cody Triolo off a feed by Lewie Blackburn with 6.4 seconds to go. Hopewell had grabbed a 2-0 lead with a transition goal by Whittaker 5:50 into the game off a pass by Elliot Rose and a 14-yard scorcher by Mahn off a feed by Mike Birkhofer with 4:48 left in the half.
"We started off a little panicky, but that's natural in a game like this," Mahn said. "But for the most part we stayed composed. We had a lot of trust in everyone because we wanted everyone to contribute. We don’t ever want to make one person feel like they have to carry us. The team stayed composed, stayed calm, did our thing."
Mahn was essentially repeating Siris' general theme at halftime: stay calm, keep your heads. Particularly important for his players to be reminded of that against an opponent that has recently flourished in close games. Princeton Day had carved its way to the final with two overtime, 8-7 victories over second-seeded Notre Dame and sixth-seeded Princeton.
"Stay calm, stay composed. You’ve been there before," Siris told his troops. " We try to not look at the scoreboard. We just go out and do our best play by play. We try to keep a real workmanlike attitude
"Last year in states and counties we had some juniors who tried to do a little too much," Siris said. "My main focal point in beginning of the year with the seniors was make sure we didn’t have one person trying to too much. We do it together."
There certainly was a splendid symmetry among the positions here, and it started with the strong faceoff work of Brett Simon and his loyal wings, Chaz Bell and Pagano. The Bulldogs were 5-0 on draws in the first half and won 10 of 12 for the game.
They, of course, worked the ball to the offense, who dominated early possession and, in turn, kept the Hopewell defenders fresh. That gave that group ample energy to extend their duties beyond just stopping goals.
Higgins did that when he collected a ground ball in the defending box off a strong check and sprinted 70 yards to the cage to open a 3-1 lead 1:22 into the second half. That was his third goal of the season and second in the tournament. Princeton Day pulled to within a goal 7:18 later on a wraparound by Garrett Jensen.
Hopewell Valley manufactured good enough shots to increase its lead in the third quarter, but freshman goalie Griffin Thompson would have no part of it. He made four difficult saves, including one with his chest and another with his left leg on a sensational split.
Hopewell persisted and grabbed a 4-2 lead when Mahn fed Birkhofer for a dunk 1:06 into the fourth quarter. Whittaker opened a two-goal lead 2:40 later with a fast-break goal off a feed from Birkhofer, and Bell finished the scoring with 3:47 to go off a pass by Mahn.
"It was great. Our offense when they click, they're just unstoppable," Kley said. "When we get it going, we’re just gonna pour it on. We got Elliot, Taggart, Ryan, everyone. I rely on them, they rely on us and I just knew I could trust them."
Mike Kinney covers boys lacrosse for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS