The boys lacrosse team can clearly be compared to the best lacrosse teams that New Jersey has ever produced.
It wasn’t as much what the Panthers did on the field this season as how they did it. Bridgewater-Raritan dominated its opponents in every phase of the game—on average, the Group IV champions scored nearly 13 goals a game while surrendering less than four.
The unbeaten Panthers were rarely threatened during the season, and their only challenge came from a motivated Ridgewood team in a thrilling triple overtime contest in the semifinal round of the Tournament of Champions.
Their 11-5 victory over Delbarton Saturday in the concluded a perfect season and extended a two-year win streak of 36 games. It also gave Bridgewater-Raritan its second consecutive T of C title and third overall state championship.
“It’s incredible,’’ attackman Scott Bieda said. “Everyone always talks about that movie, 'The Perfect Season.' It actually happened and it all goes back to working hard in the off season. I can’t tell you how much every single kid worked in the off season. Everybody put the work in. That’s why we’re here right now.’’
A vast number of elements came together to give the Panthers a perfect season. At the core of it was a sense of unity and the team chemistry that was forged as early as the second grade when some of the players were just learning to throw and catch.
“They are very close,’’ coach Chuck Apel said. “The guys started playing in second grade together. Ryan’s dad, M.G. Hollingsworth, got everything started. They kept adding kids every summer and they just made a tremendous commitment to be good. They depended on each other. They shared a ball and it just works well. You can see the special connection Scotty [Bieda] and Ryan have. They just find each other.’’
This year’s seniors, as they progressed in youth leagues, always enjoyed a measure of success that improved their skills, built their confidence and instilled their belief and trust in each other.
“It’s literally the unity of the group and the chemistry,’’ Bieda said. “I think we will go down as one of those teams because of that unity, that trustworthiness that every kid is going to make the play.’’
Like most championship teams, the qualities that made them so weren’t forged in the spotlight, but during many dark, quiet hours of hard work and commitment when no one was watching them but each other.
“They’ve been training us like Spartans for the last year,’’ goalkeeper Zach Jones said. “They’ve built us up, so it’s pretty incredible. In the off season we do conditioning three days a week that’s pretty intense. It’s using resistance bands. It strengthens our legs and arms so it’s pretty grueling.’’
Apel also noted the commitment of his players to the sport. He described Sunday mornings in January when as many as 50 athletes would come out in 15-degree weather for workouts and training. The level of work ethic, he said, is something that is fundamental for any team to succeed.
“These kids deserved to do this,’’ Apel said. “Every kid made sure they did what they had to do. I think it helps. I think they know that they are going on to something else and they have to work at it. They work very hard.’’
The players have already seen what hard work and commitment can do for them. Many will be moving on to play lacrosse at the Division I level on scholarship.
Bieda is going to Manhattan and Hollingsworth is headed for Rutgers. Ray Mastroianni [Lehigh], Evan Mock [Virginia], Jones [Hartford], Vince Colatriano [Hofstra], John Longardo [Delaware] and Connor Murphy [Colgate] had reasons to stay committed to conditioning, and resisted the temptation to take it easier since their college futures are secure.
“It shows how intense everyone is and how much it means to everyone,’’ Jones said.
“It’s amazing that we have so many people going Division I and we all think it’s a good thing to accomplish, but we were really focused on making this high school season what it is," he added. "Being a Division I athlete doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win this [game]. There are plenty of Division I athletes out there that don’t win this.’’
“We have a lot of DI players, but so do a lot of other teams,’’ Mastroianni added. “We don’t try to focus on that stuff, we try to focus on the now.’’
All the players believe the Panthers have a high degree of togetherness and family unity that sets them apart from most teams. Mastroianni takes it one step further, noting the team’s degree of selflessness that separates it from its opponents.
“We don’t really care who scores, it’s whoever the open guy is,’’ he said. “It’s whoever draws a guy. It doesn’t matter. We’re all going to get our looks. We are all going to get our shots. We’re all going to get our goals. I think that’s what makes this team so special. We are so well-rounded. That’s what really stands out in my mind.’’
Like all good teams, they have made themselves better, especially during grueling practices that are usually more physical and exhausting than the actual games. Jones, Mock and junior Jared Kaden have become markedly better defensive players by having to tangle with Bieda and Hollingsworth day in and day out.
Consequently, the improvement of the defense has kept the Bridgewater-Raritan attack on its toes and, in the process, lifted the quality of play for everyone.
“We get better in practice every day working with those guys,’’ Mock said. “They all help us through. We push each other. We give each other competition in practice and that’s what gets us to that next level.’’
And of course, the Panthers have a coach who knows how to orchestrate a team to play at the highest level. Apel built the Bridgewater-Raritan program, and is respected and well known not only in New Jersey but in lacrosse circles at the national level.
He has inspired a family atmosphere that the Panthers have dedicated themselves to wholeheartedly. Through him, they have established standards that have the Panthers working towards a level of greatness, and he has also built a coaching staff to help the players achieve their goals.
“I think he’s taught me the amount of effort that we need to put in to succeed,’’ Jones said. “I can’t imagine being coached by anyone else. People say he’s a tough guy, but you need a tough guy. He deserves Coach of the Year. He definitely knows his stuff.’’
As they celebrated their victory over Delbarton and their second consecutive Tournament of Champions title on the Kean University turf, the Bridgewater-Raritan seniors knew that it was a moment they will always savor and will never experience the same way again.
They also said they understood what it took to get there, and, in their own way, hope their efforts have sowed the seeds for the greatness of future Panthers teams.
“We wanted to continue the legacy,’’ Mastroanni said. “Before us, Coach Apel has done an unbelievable job. We always just wanted to keep continuing it. We want the underclassmen to follow after us. We saw the older kids when we were young. Just to be able to keep following it is what we were trying to do.’’