SUMMIT, NJ - Playing with their backs against the wall -- and their season on the line -- the Summit High School Boys Varsity Lacrosse Team dug deep, scoring three fourth-quarter goals to defeat Cranford 8-7, and claim the Group 2 state title.
Senior captain John Cordrey scored two goals in the final frame, including the game-winner, and set up Corey McManus for the other, as the Hilltoppers rallied from a 7-5 deficit to win, and booked their spot in the Tournament of Champions, where they will face Rumson Fair-Haven May 30 at Bridgewater-Raritan High School. Face-off is set for 7:30 p.m.
In a game played in hot, muggy conditions and twice delayed -- for a total of an hour and 40 minutes -- due to lightning, Summit found itself pitted against a talented, loose Cranford squad that came with a game plan, executed it perfectly for three quarters, and nearly came away with what most would consider a stunning win.
Led by Luke Christiano -- a name familiar to most Summit football fans -- Cranford dominated possession, took the lead, and had Summit on the ropes. Christiano had four goals on the day, while also handing face-off duty for the Cougars.
Cranford led, 1-0, when Christiano scored at the 9:16 mark of the first quarter, but Summit tied it when Andrew Chase took a pass from Cordrey and scored at 7:24.
Christiano was winning every face-off, and the Cougars had the ball for the high majority of the first quarter and cashed-in twice more. Mike Palumbo scored at 4:20 mark to put Cranford back in front, and Christiano's second goal of the game just over a minute later upped the advantage to 3-1.
The Hilltoppers cut the lead to 3-2 when, off a face-off taken by Stevie Rainero, captain and defender Sean Andrews gathered the ground ball and raced into the offensive zone. Sensing a path to goal, Andrews knifed in front and scored. The rare goal from one of their "long poles" seemed to energize Summit, who were benefiting from Rainero neutralizing Christiano at "the X," and were also helped out in the quarter by the Cougars hitting two posts.
As the skies grew more threatening above, likewise did Summit's offense, and they equalized when Drew Mulholland buried a left-handed rip to make it 3-3 at 6:20. The teams traded possessions heading to halftime, but neither broke through and it remained deadlocked after 24 minutes.
The primary lightning delay occurred five minutes into the third quarter, and it wasn't until an hour and five minutes had passed before the game resumed. When it did, Christiano scored his Hat Trick goal, but then Summit fought back to take its first lead of the game.
Captain Chris Zanelli scored from the top center to make 4-4 at 5:17, and Evan Kulpan put the Hilltoppers ahead 29 seconds later. It felt to most like Summit was poised to put some distance between itself and the Cougars, but instead the opposite happened in quick order.
Two unsettled situations resulting from missed ground ball opportunities led to two goals for the Cougars Richie Hurley, and Christiano won a face-off, scooped the ball up and scored, all in the final three minutes of the quarter. Cranford led 7-5 heading into the fourth, meaning the Hilltoppers would have to find a way out of the hole they found themselves in if they wanted their season to continue.
Turns out these Hilltoppers can climb.
McManus took a feed from Cordrey just one minute into the fourth and made it 7-6. Four minutes later -- after some tenacious defense won the ball back -- Cordrey finished to level the score with just seven minutes remaining. Less than two minutes after that, the comeback was complete as Cordrey again found the back of the net, cutting to his left across the face of goal and beating Cougars goalie Ryan Shupp.
Summit had the lead and all the momentum but, then, lightning flashed in the sky and a second delay occurred, with both teams again heading to their locker rooms accompanied by another mandatory stadium evacuation.
Play resumed 35 minutes later, and both teams had chances in the final minutes. Hilltopper goalie Jay Winchell, who had eight saves in the game, made a big stop on a bounce shot in the final minute, and Christiano's pass in the final seconds was broken up. The final horn -- and bedlam -- ensued.
"We got in a hole early as they had great possession and scored on some quick shots," said Summit Head Coach Jim Davidson. "We had great looks and, even though we didn't finish, we still felt confident."
As for the two-goal pit they found themselves in heading into the last quarter, Davidson said. "We told the team, 'guys, this is it,' and our kids really care and they battled back."
Now it is on to the Tournament of Champions for Summit, which seemed like a bit of a long shot just a under month ago, when a humbling loss to Seton Hall Prep left many observers wondering where this Hilltopper squad was headed.
"We had some bumps in the road during the middle of the season, but we kept improving, kept battling," said Davidson. "We picked it up, and our practices got better and our play got better."
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