By ANDREW GARDA
When it comes to high school sports, especially lacrosse, it isn’t how you start, it’s how you finish.
While the Montclair High School Mounties (7-4, 4-4 NJILL) started off by losing four of their first five games, a win on Wednesday, May 19, in the semifinal round of the Essex County Tournament over Caldwell showed they may be peaking at just the right time.
The 9-1 victory for the No. 2-seeded Mounties over the No. 3-seeded Chiefs not only propelled Montclair into the ECT finals on Saturday, May 22, at Seton Hall Prep, but was the team’s sixth win in a row.
The first quarter started off slowly for Montclair, and the team struggled to keep an even flow going. The defense, as it has all year, played exceptionally well, though, and kept Caldwell from getting any traction either, providing enough time for Montclair to break the seal on the scoreless game in the second quarter.
“I feel like we just needed a quarter to settle in,” MHS head coach Mike Diehl said after the win. “Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was, you know, just not playing clean, but it took a little while to settle.”
With 6:10 left in the quarter, sophomore Luca Ward beat the Caldwell goalie, giving MHS a 1-0 lead. Montclair added to it twice more with scores by Ian Muchineuta and Jared Topf, heading into the half with a 3-0 lead.
“[Ward] really helps even everything out and usually [the opponent’s] third defender is on him. He’s a pretty good player, and he can make plays on some of their weaker defenders,” Diehl said.
Montclair kept things going in the third quarter with goals by Solomon Brennan and Sean Murphy to build a 5-0 lead.
Caldwell finally found the back of the net, slipping the ball past goalie Charlie Schmitt, but that was as much offense as the Chiefs could muster. The fourth quarter was all Montclair, as the Mounties added four unanswered goals by Topf, Ward, James Kaz and Gage Hammond to send Caldwell home and secure themselves a berth in the ECT finals.
The win also set up Montclair for a potential revenge game against top-seeded Seton Hall Prep, which beat MHS handily in the third game of the season on April 24.
After the Caldwell win, Diehl told his players they were not the same group the Pirates saw in April.
“I just think we’re a different team,” he said. “I think we have more guys that can make plays and end up on the stat sheet than we did in the third game of our season. I think we have more threats. I think we play a more complete game on offense and defense.”
He has a point, as this is a team that last week beat two teams ranked in the top 20 in the state. First, the Mounties stunned No. 5 Westfield with a 5-3 win at home on Fortunato Field. Then they repeated the feat against No. 8 Manasquan with a 9-4 victory at home.
Montclair’s four losses all were to teams that were top 20 at the time, including Seton Hall, at the time ranked No. 4 in the state.
For Diehl, those wins are about more than just this season. They are the payoff of four years of rebuilding the Montclair lacrosse culture.
“It’s been a long road from a culture perspective, right?” he said. “This is the first time that I’ve been here [with] the freshman class from when I first stepped in the door. The culture is all there. The kids know how to approach every day. They know what’s expected, and it’s really, really nice to see that happen.”
Win or lose on Saturday, MHS still has a lot to play for this season, with more regular season games left and the NJSIAA Tournament as well.