CHATHAM, NJ - The good news is that Chatham is the NJSIAA 2016 Group 2 boys lacrosse state champion and no one can take that away. The reality is that every team that steps on the field against the Cougars in 2017 will be looking to knock that crown off their heads.
That's why Chatham coach Tony Calandra feels good that he'll be fielding a team populated by seniors and juniors as the Cougars try to add onto their total of three state championships earned over the previous five years.
"We're pretty junior/senior dominant this year, which is a good thing," Calandra said. "Anytime you can get your juniors and seniors to be your dominant players, it gives the sophomores role models to look up to and shows you have seasoned guys.
"Every year is a new year. Our message is, don't think about what happened last year. Go out and compete and earn everything on the field."
The fact that Chatham defeated Manasquan by a 4-2 score in the Group 2 final only accentuates the number of starting defenders returning for the Cougars.
"We have our entire defense team back except for the goalie," Calandra said. "It's nice to know that you don't have score a ton of goals to be in games. Coach (Dave) Rinaldi does a great job with his guys and we expect them to be as good as they were last year."
It is no coincidence that the tri-captains - Geoff O"Malley, Pat Cosgrove and Timmy Adams - do their work on the defensive end. O'Malley, Kyle Kology and Chris Conlin return with their long sticks, along with long-stick middie Cosgrove and defensive middiies Adams and Jack Rooney.
That veteran contingent will be out to protect Chatham goalies, senior Jack O'Neill and junior Ryan Ness. The two are battling to fill the void left by the graduation of Matt Nestler.
Offensively, junior Mac Bredahl is the only starter back on attack. Bredahl piled up 105 points last year with 49 goals and 56 assists and he'll be joined by Connor Byrd and Thomas Berger, both of whom have switched over from offensive midfield positions. The starting offensive middies include Chris Francesco, Ryan Decker and Max Schelling.
Adding to the defensive depth are Harrison Shi and Jake Wingate, and long-stick middies Chris Grosso and Joe Marotta.
Grant Webster adds to the attack, along with offensive middies Evan Gavalakis, Frank Anello, Ryan Chase and Colin Hart. Senior Will Hosbein returns as the No. 1 faceoff man.
Chatham seniors have expressed a bit of disappointment that Summit has moved up to Group 3 and will not be an opponent in the state tournament.
"We always looked forward to playing them in the state tournament, but it doesn't change much," Adams said. "We still have to work hard and beat good teams to win again."
Sparta comes to Cougar Field for Chatham's season opener on Wednesday, March 29.
Chatham players kissed the championship trophy after winning the Group 2 state championship in 2016