by Andrew Garda
New Montclair High School boys lacrosse coach Mike Diehl has some fond memories of the Montclair team — from his time on the other side of the field.
“Back when I played at Hunterdon Central, the group 4 Championship was always us against Montclair,” the new MHS head coach said during a recent practice. “And I remember Montclair being a really tough, hard-nosed team that would always give us the game of the season. In recent years there’s been a bit of a downfall and living here now, I’ve gotten to know people around town that are all very supportive and excited about this year. They want Montclair lacrosse to get back to what it used to be. And to have that in a town you’re coaching in really makes you excited and passionate about what you can do and the level you can reach.”
It has been a fairly dry stretch for the Mountie program, which is on its third head coach in as many years, coming off back-to-back five-win seasons. Diehl wants consistency, competitiveness and determination to be hallmarks in the program again.
“We want to be the most competitive team we can be and get used to that on a daily basis,” he said. “Competition is part of our practice every day … whether it’s between two players, or we split the team into blue and white, every day there’s a winner and a loser. So they get used to that, to competing and it becomes second nature to them.”
While there are some fresh faces — and in the case of goalie Drew Skibniewski, an old face returning after a year absence — the heart of the team comes in the form of veterans.
And with Skibniewski sitting for half the season — or half the games this season, whichever comes first — due to transfer rules, the veteran the team will be turning to in net is Ashton Smith.
Smith saw a lot of action last year, when every goaltender on the roster was hurt at some point or other. Diehl said not only did he earn his spot last season, but he’s done very well this preseason as well. He’s done well enough, in fact, that losing Skibniewski — who is exceptionally skilled — isn’t as critical a loss as it could be.
The top attacking line is another spot where Diehl said the team will shine.
Navy commit Will Schiffenhaus, fresh off a great ice hockey season, is joined by Scranton commit Dylan Vespole and sophomore Lucas Podvey to carry the weight on attack, and Diehl said the unit is looking sharp. Behind them are a bevy of mid-fielders, led by senior Finn Jensen, who is committed to Union College for football.
“[Finn] is just a horse,” Diehl said. “He’s a captain for us too, he understands everything and does a lot for us.”
Along with Jensen are fellow senior John Painter and multiple juniors and sophomores.
“Jeikson Boyle is good both offensively and defensively. Same thing with Christian Sanchez and Joe McBride. All of them are juniors,” Diehl said. “Painter is playing both midfield and attack for us and he has a lot of years under his belt. He’s very experienced.”
Lucas Bellandi will fill the position of long-stick midfielder, while sophomore Max Jennings and senior Reshad Williams will play defensive midfielder roles. Jennings hadn’t played lacrosse in several years, focusing on soccer, but after a return to the football field in the fall, he’s made his way back to lacrosse. Diehl said there’s no rust on Jennings.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete,” Diehl said. “He came back this year to play and has done a great job. He’s a natural.”
The defense will be centered around three players who have really stood out in spring practices.
“We’re led by our senior captain, Elijah Synsmir, who has had a really good preseason,” Diehl said. “Harrison Blanz is a junior who is a phenomenal defender as well. He’s really surprised the whole coaching staff and is going to be a match-up nightmare. And then freshman Matt Skiznewski has done a nice job as well getting his feet wet.”
The Mounties opened their season Wednesday afternoon after press time against Ridgewood at Fortunato Field. They will play three straight road games — at Northern Highlands April 3, at Livingston April 5, and at Caldwell April 7 — before returning home to Fortunato for a rivalry game Monday, April 9, against MKA.