CHATHAM, NJ - Survive and advance.
That's exactly what the Chatham boys lacrosse team did with a 9-8 nail-biter over Sparta on Tuesday in quarterfinal round of the North Jersey, Group 2 tournament at Cougar Field.
Rich Berger scored the ninth goal for Chatham with about four minutes left and goalie Matt Grilli stopped a last-second shot by Sparta's Skyler Francisco to move the Cougars into the North Jersey semifinals. Third-seeded Chatham (16-6) will travel to meet second-seeded Northern Highlands in Allendale on Thursday.
"I have to be honest with you, their offense hurt us more than anybody really all year," Chatham coach Tony Calandra said. "We were over committing. This time of year, a win is a win. It's about survive and advance. It isn't always the prettiest."
Sparta (9-10) was playing for the second straight day, having knocked off Pascack Valley, 10-2, in its first round game played on Monday. The Spartans had a hot goalie in senior Reagan Penner and an offense highlighted by Francisco.
"They (Chatham players) could have folded many times throughout, but they hung together and, ultimately, we needed one stop and we got it," Calandra said. "The seniors, in their last home game, wanted to go out as winners."
The stop came after the Spartans gained possession and called time out with 55.6 seconds to go. Francisco, marked by long pole middie Danny Winschuh, spun to fire a shot from a hard angle, but goalie Matt Grilli blocked it with his stick and then covered up.
"I got a piece of it," Grilli said. "I just tried to match stick with stick. He's so close to me. Great game by the defense, that's all I've got to say. They bailed me out so many times. I just gotta love it."
Penner made 13 saves for Sparta, stopping shots by Rich Berger a number of time. But when David Gill made one of his patented runs to the cage, he drew the defense to him and then dropped the ball inside for Berger, who connected for a 9-7 advantage.
"I couldn't really get anything off, my defenseman was covering me pretty well, but I cut and David gave me the pass and I finished it," Rich Berger said. "The goalie was really on. He stopped a lot of my shots and it was getting pretty frustrating at one point. You just have to calm down and hope for the best when you're shooting on goal. I bounced it and kind of hoped for the best. Put it right where it should be."
Francisco's goal with 2:07 left was his third of the game and set up the dramatic finish by cutting it to 9-8.
Rich Berger scored in the first period to make it 1-1 and, with Chatham playing a man down, Gill won the faceoff, raced to the goal and fired in an overhand shot to make it a 2-2 game. Pierce, who ended with three goals, scored his first as Chatham took a 3-2 edge into the second period.
Winschuh's clear and pass set up a Scott Lynch goal before Pierce worked a give-and-go with Gill to give Chatham a 6-2 lead in the second. Pierce had set a pick for Gill, who ran off the pick before sending it back to Pierce for the goal.
Austin Pierce scores in the second period for Chatham in video below
But Sparta stormed back to score three straight goals, the final two by Francisco, slicing Chatham's lead to 6-5 at the break.
In the third, freshman Thomas Berger came from behind the net to score and stake Chatham to a 7-5 lead. But Tyler Mead scored to close out the third period scoring and his brother, Owen, netted a goal in the fourth to pull Sparta even at 7-7.
Lynch picked up a ground ball to give Chatham an 8-7 lead with 5:48 left before Berger made it 9-7.