CRANFORD - For years, the Cranford boys lacrosse program found itself competing in the South Jersey Group 2 bracket of the State Tournament.
This year, the Cougars have been moved to the North Group 3 bracket. New bracket means new unknown opponents and first on the road to a sectional championship was the Roxbury Gaels.
Regular season records can be deceiving. Strong programs can find themselves in divisions with even stronger programs, leading to an unimpressive record.
On Wednesday, Roxbury entered the state tournament 4-14 on the year but played nothing like the ledger read. Cranford found itself clinging to just a one-goal lead with five minutes left in final quarter, but senior Dante Cassaro came up big with his third and fourth goals of the game to seal the deal and lead fourth-seeded Cranford past 13th-seeded Roxbury, 9-7, in the first round of the North Jersey Group 3 tournament.
"They came to play. It's the playoffs. Everybody comes to play," said Cranford goalie Phil Marotta. "We had a 3-0 start, but then we kind of just died off and lost it. They kept bringing it because it could have been their last game."
Roxbury won the opening face-off and got a shot on Marotta less than 30 seconds in but Marotta snatched it for the first of his 14 saves. Conor Halpin got the Cougars onto the board just under three minutes in and Cassaro added two more goals as Cranford went into the second period up 3-0.
The foot came off the gas in the second quarter as Roxbury rattled-off three straight goals of its own to tie the game. Cole Blazek netted the final goal of the quarter for Cranford with just over a minute to go to take the Cougars into the half with the lead. Nate Caldwell snuck one past Roxbury goalie Jacob Martinelli with just 1.4 seconds left but the goal was waved off due to being in the crease. Steve Shore had set up Caldwell with a nearly 60-yard pass.
Halpin scored the lone goal of the third quarter less than a minute in and followed up with his third of the game early in the fourth but mental errors allowed Roxbury to pull back within one.
"Just a lot of mental mistakes," said Marotta. "We can play physically, we just need to work on our mental game."
The Cougars will take on a familiar foe in fifth-seeded Scotch Plains-Fanwood (10-7) in the quarterfinal round on Saturday. Cranford edged out Scotch Plains-Fanwood, 6-5, earlier in the regular season, but over the years, Scotch-Plains-Fanwood has typically gotten the better of Cranford.
"It's a mental game. We can't just walk into it like we steamrolled them because we didn't," said Marotta. "It's always been a good rivalry so it's always good to play them. It's like a revenge tour now. Not just for them but really for us to show them who we really are. - not the team we were in the past."
GOALS: Cassaro (4), Halpin (3), Blazek (2)
ASSISTS: Kalnins (2), Echavarria (2), Shore, Goldfeder
SAVES: Marotta (14)
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