PISCATAWAY, NJ – Superstitions run deep in sports. No matter what the game, players and coaches, fans and administrators – heck, just about everyone involved with the team on some level – can draw meaning from the smallest event or imbalance before, during or after the game. For players it can be something like a lucky pair of socks that hasn't been washed during a winning streak. For a fan, it can be an article of clothing worn during every win. It would not be surprising then that during Summit’s state-record 68-game winning streak some superstitions had been created and repeated nearly six dozen times over the past three seasons. Yet before the Hilltoppers’ Tournament of Champions Final against Bridgewater-Raritan, the half-hour lightning delay that pushed the game’s start time back from 3:00 p.m. to 3:38 and caused the entire field to be evacuated could have been viewed – by the superstitious – as highly ominous.
Lightning or no lightning, the final score is one these Hilltoppers and their fans won’t soon forget, no matter how much they’d like to erase it from their collective memory. For at the end of 48 minutes of hard-fought, nail-biting, gut-wrenching lacrosse, Summit’s record winning streak vanished into the thin, gray drizzle of a late Saturday afternoon on Yurcak Field, a fine athletic facility on the campus of Rutgers University in Piscataway. Bridgewater-Raritan had done what 68 teams before them could not – best the Hilltoppers and not only snap the streak, but wrestle away a Tournament of Champions title in the process. The crushing hurt of defeat was evident on every Hilltoppers’ face. Some lay face-down on the field while the Panthers celebrated all around them, unable to pull their bodies up to their feet and walk to the sidelines. When it was all said and done, Summit’s last-ditch comeback effort had fallen short and Bridgewater-Raritan emerged victorious by the slimmest of margins, 6-5.
“It was a great game, it was hard-fought, back and forth,” Summit head coach Jim Davidson said after the game. “They tried to make a little run on us early and take control, but we fought back. I thought we had some great shot opportunities...maybe we hit a pipe here or there, whatever. It wasn’t because of a lack of effort [that we lost], it wasn’t from a lack of execution. I just think today you have to credit Bridgewater. They played hard, they’re a great team. We knew that they were a great team, that’s why they’re here in this game. It just was a game of runs, back-and-forth. We had some opportunities, but right now, I’m just really proud of our kids. To go through this whole thing, to get through this whole year and do the things that they did – I just can’t say enough about them.”
The crowd of nearly 5,000 spectators was evenly split right down the middle of the grandstand, black on one side, maroon on the other. The rival student sections serenaded each other relentlessly for over two hours and the eruptions of cheers after a goal or a key play on both sides of the stands were enough to shake the ground. It was one of the most electric atmospheres ever assembled for a high school lacrosse game and that energy immediately transferred to the players on the field, each combatant upping his game and leaving not one inch of the playing surface uncontested. Bridgewater-Raritan’s relentless defense forced Summit’s deliberate and skilled offense into several uncharacteristic turnovers and unforced errors and Panthers’ junior goalie Zach Jones put together a virtuoso performance with six huge saves. Jones’ defense not only stood tall in front of him, they held a Summit offense which had registered 26 shots against Delbarton in the semifinal round, to just 18 on the afternoon. The Panthers also held Summit’s leading goal-scorer, Nick Kilkowski without a point for the first time all season.
Less than two minutes into the game, however, Summit’s senior co-captain Terry McKenna put the Hilltoppers on the board first with an absolute rifle shot from nearly 12 yards out. McKenna laced a shot past Jones’ right shoulder and handcuffed the Panthers’ goaltender to give Summit a short-lived 1-0 lead. Bridgewater-Raritan would answer 1:13 later when junior attackman Scott Bieda netted the tying marker after a sensational individual effort to beat Peter Badgley. McKenna notched his second goal of the game just 1:38 later when he again fired a laser, this time from 10 yards out on the opposite side after taking a slick feed from Sonny Round to put Summit up, 2-0. Ryan Hollingsworth tied the game with a low shot that bounced off of Badgley’s stick and through his legs, a goal on which Bieda assisted. The first quarter ended tied, 2-2.
The second period was equally tight and hotly contested. At halftime, Bridgewater-Raritan owned a 4-3 lead thanks to two big goals by sophomore Tyler Konen. Sonny Round scored for Summit at the 6:44 mark to cut the Panthers lead to 4-3. Following Round’s goal, Summit owned time of possession and had several good scoring chances, but failed to capitalize. Nick Kilkowski, held scoreless on six shots on the afternoon, hit two pipes from in close in the final five minutes of the second quarter. The frustration was evident on Kilkowski’s face after each attempt rang hard off the posts because these were shots the 64-goal scorer normally buries.
Along with the missed scoring chances, Bridgewater-Raritan’s stifling defense forced the Hilltoppers into uncharacteristic mistakes, yet Davidson would not blame his team. Instead, the humble and dignified architect of New Jersey’s longest-ever winning streak in the sport of boys lacrosse chose instead to credit Bridgewater-Raritan for a job well done as well as praise his team for leaving everything on the field.
“It could have been a shot here, or a groundball there, whatever,” Davidson said. “For the most part, we were in a situation where we wanted to come out here and give our best effort and not have any regrets and right now, I don’t think we have any regrets. Bridgewater played a heck of a game today. I never, ever talked about the streak, but right now I’ll say that it’s a tribute to these kids. That’s 68 times they went and punched their ticket and went to work every day and [came out with a win]. I think they did a great job.”
McKenna tied the game for Summit at the 9:54 mark of the third period and for most of the frame, it looked as if the Hilltoppers were about to pull in front. Again, Jones and his defense stood strong in the face of Summit’s relentless attack. The Panthers forced Summit into back-to-back turnovers on the Hilltoppers’ final two possessions and Jones made a tremendous save on a whistling shot by McKenna just before the end of the period. Round picked up the rebound and deposited it into the back of the net, but the officials ruled that the goal had come just after the buzzer and did not count.
The fourth and final period began with Jones stoning Kilkowski in front of the net on a glorious scoring opportunity. That save seemed to energize the entire Bridgewater-Raritan team and from that point on, the Panthers took the play to the Hilltoppers and began the attack that would ultimately end Summit’s streak. Just 58 seconds after Jones’ save on Kilkowski, Bieda scored the go-ahead goal during a man-up situation after Summit’s Timmy Yager took a one-minute penalty for unnecessary roughness. With just 3:15 left, the Panthers’ Ray Mastroianni scored a back-breaking unassisted goal that would turn out to be the game-winner. McKenna got to the front of the net and potted a dazzling behind-the-head shot with 1:33, but the Hilltoppers could get no closer and when the final buzzer sounded, Bridgewater-Raritan’s sideline stormed their teammates on the field as several Hilltoppers lay prone on the field, their heads in their hands, fully aware that their season, their streak, and their title hopes were all dashed.
Following the post-game handshake, the Hilltoppers slowly made their way to the far end of the field to watch the Panthers receive their T of C trophy. After a respectful round of applause directed toward Bridgewater-Raritan, several Hilltoppers seniors broke down in tears. This was as raw as it would ever get for them, their high school careers – filled with victories and championships – finished with a loss none of them could have imagined suffering only two hours before.
Through it all, Davidson would only reflect with pride, his focus on all the achievements his team had accomplished, his love for his senior class like that of a father for his sons.
“I told them that they have nothing to hang their heads about [after this loss],” Davidson said. “They represented Summit extremely well. They played hard, they did everything that we asked them to do – every day and every game – and today, Bridgewater made a play here or there, just enough, and that was the difference. That was it.”
“What they accomplished – all the kids, all the way down the line over these past three years – is something to be proud of.”
As they exited the field to a standing ovation from their fans, it was evident that Davidson’s words about his Summit Hilltoppers were true and after the immediate pain of this loss wears off, his team will realize just how amazing their run of victories was and how well, and with how much class, they put together a winning streak for the ages.