by Andrew Garda
Montclair High School boys lacrosse made it two in a row Thursday afternoon with a powerful 6-2 win over visiting Caldwell on May 6. That victory followed a dominating win 15-4 win at home against Livingston on May 4.
“We played for four quarters today,” head coach Mike Diehl said after the win. “The defense was really focused from the get-go, everybody was communicating. Everybody owned their matchups. We played really well in the middle of the field, created turnovers, which made for a lot of easy transition goals.”
The win puts the Mounties at 3-4 (0-4 NJILL Fitch-Pitt) after a rough opening stretch against powerhouse teams such as Delbarton, Seton Hall Prep and Summit.
“Our first five games were against three Top 5 teams in the state, and one top one in the Top 15,” Diehl said.
While that is a difficult way to open a season – especially since it puts the team in a bit of a hole in the Fitch-Pitt division, Diehl thinks it has its benefits.
“We’d rather play [the top teams] early, just so we’re battle tested moving into the counties and the States in the second half of the season,” he said.
The “forged in fire” process seems to be beginning to pay dividends as some players are beginning to step up.
A great example of this is Will Labartino, who struggled early in the season, and now has scored nine goals in two games, while adding four assists.
“The first four games, he was in a little bit of a shooting slump, had some troubles finishing the ball,” Diehl said of the senior. “But the past two games he really went off, regained his confidence. And when he does have confidence, he’s one of the best finishers definitely in the county. He’s doing a nice job.”
Labartino’s four goals on Thursday were certainly a major factor in the win over Caldwell, as every time he found the back of the net, the Chiefs were forced to press even harder, though the Mountie defense stayed strong.
That was clear by how few shots made it all the way to goalie Charlie Schmitt, who made saves on all five shots against him. The two goals by Caldwell came with Kyle Alexander in the net, and in a stretch where the defense looked a little lackluster.
Labartino is just one of the seniors on the team who Diehl is seeing step up in recent games.
Midfielder Jared Topf has been outstanding, the coach said, especially on faceoffs.
“I don’t know his exact face-off percentage, but it’s definitely one of the highest in the state,” Diehl said. “He plays offense and defense, he does have everything.”
So far this season, Topf has won 41 of 59 faceoffs he lined up for, a massive advantage for any team looking to get the offense rolling in a game, or to snatch momentum away from an opponent.
“James Kaz has done a really nice job as well at midfield, playing offense and defense,” Diehl said.
The defense is mostly seniors, which can help stabilize a team both during a game and when things get rough, as they did with losses in four of the first five games (the lone win coming in a 10-2 victory over West Essex).
Diehl has looked to those seniors to help settle things down on the field and help ease the burden on the goaltender.
“Jonas Taylor-Lilquist has done a really nice job, as has Matt Skibniewski, Henry Painter, Mike Wakefield, all have played well. Luke Budetti, playing long stick D-Middie too,” Diehl said.
Still, it’s a work in progress, and Diehl said that even in a win, there are things to fix. For example, Caldwell spent a lot of time on offense in the second half but couldn’t find the goal. Against a better team, not getting the ball out of their own end might prove disastrous.
“What happened was that we gave them a lot of second opportunities because we didn’t clear the ball the first time,” Diehl said. “So that’s why we ended up on our defensive end for the whole second half. When we finally did clear the ball successfully, we were able to put some in.”
As the season progresses and the Mounties begin to look towards potential postseason games, Diehl and his staff are also trying to make sure the Mounties appreciate what they have right now.
This time last year, there was no season, seniors got no final year playing on Fortunato Field and the team didn’t get a chance to enjoy the sport many of them spent all year looking forward to.
“They love to be here every day,” Diehl said of his team. “Me and the rest of the coaches too. There’s nowhere else we’d rather be. [Before the first game] we hadn’t played a game in over 600 days. So, every day we’re just really happy to be out here with the kids, and it’s a mutual feeling with them also.”
Montclair remains at home for their next game, the first half of a home and home with Westfield High School. That will take place at 4pm on Tuesday, May 11, with the away matchup taking place on May 15.