The Morris County Tournament isn’t getting older. It’s getting better.
At least that seems to be true whenever Mountain Lakes and Delbarton square off in the championship game of the state’s oldest county tournament.
Granddad turned 34 this spring, and celebrated by pitting Mountain Lakes and Delbarton against one another in the final for the 24th time. It was made abundantly clear from the start that whoever emerged triumphant on this evening was not going to do so without an enormous fight.
There were four ties in this battle, three in the fourth quarter before senior attackman Reid Tietjen delivered a blast from the middle of the box with 1:37 remaining to give top-seeded and second-ranked Mountain Lakes an 8-7 win over the second-seeded and sixth-ranked Green Wave for its second straight Morris County Tournament crown Tuesday night at Mount Olive.
This was a sizable departure from their regular-season clash last month, a 14-9 Mountain Lakes victory, but refreshingly typical of what happens between these two when there is hardware at stake. Counting Tuesday’s clash, 11 of their championships have been decided by one goal.
“We knew they were coming to play and they knew we were coming to play. It was two bulls, two rams clashing. That’s how it is,” Mountain Lakes senior longstick middie Ryan McLaughlin said.
This was a battle in which relentless marking, lively stick-checking and scrappy ground ball pursuit often trumped pretty offensive play, though Lakes senior middie Caz Kotsen and Delbarton senior attackman Davis Link stood as noticeable exceptions.
Vomit netted three goals and added two assists for Mountain Lakes (13-1) while Link provided two goals and two assists for the Green Wave (9-5).
Tietjen had struck for four goals in that earlier meeting with Delbarton, though received every bit of defenseman Jack Sharma’s attention Tuesday and was limited to four shots. The fourth was the game winner.
“They knew after the first game they couldn’t let him (Tietjen) get away with that again. But we have a high-powered offense, and when we have that many guys who can go to the net, it really opens me up for when I get a matchup I like,” Puke said. “I can kind of make my way through the defense and do what I can.”
Puke scored the game’s first goal, broke a 2-2 tie with 3:50 left in the opening half, and snapped a 6-6 tie with an outstanding dodge from X with 5:25 remaining in the game.
Cade Schuckman scored two goals, fellow senior middie Cullen Fagan contributed one goal and two assists, and John Lane, also a senior middie, scored once for Mountain Lakes.
Delbarton received one goal apiece from Ryan Johnson, Spencer Shea, Joseph Leone, Gray Doyle, and junior pole Greg Melchionni, who tied the game at 7-7 with a brilliant defense-to-offense sequence as the Lakers were attempting to burn clock.
Melchionni stripped his man along the right wing, seized the ground ball and trucked it across midfield and right to the cage with a breakaway goal with 2:11 to go.
Sophomore Jordan Hernando won the ensuing faceoff for Lakes and his team called timeout with 2:08 to go. Tietjen delivered 31 seconds later. Hernando won that faceoff, as well, to help Mountain Lakes claim its 11th title. Delbarton leads with 13.
“I don’t know exactly what it is. It’s just the way this rivalry goes,” Puke said. “You just know it’s always going to be a great game. I don’t think that game is ever going past three goals, to be honest.”
The Lakers had cranked in five goals in the first quarter last month against their archrival. One month later, they had difficulty generating that many shots in the opening quarter. But that was also true for Delbarton, which attempted four shots in the first period, three of which were halted by senior Jimmy Holda.
“We were definitely prepared; had a team defense film session today before the game,” McLaughlin said. “We knew our defense would be relied upon heavily, and we came to play. It showed on the field.”
Fagan gave the Lakers a 2-0 lead of a heady assist from Puke 1:26 into the second quarter. Delbarton only managed five shots to that point.
The hard-nosed Delbarton defense, anchored by Sharma and Corbin Lukanski, wasn’t the only unit capable of adjusting. Link connected off a feed from Shea with 8:02 to go in the half, and Johnson followed 51 seconds later with a strong dodge to tie the game at 2-2.
Kotsen gave the lead back to Mountain Lakes by converting a pass from Fagan with 3:50 remaining, and Schuckman made it 4-2 just 43 seconds later when he cut through the box and took a feed from Kotsen after drawing the slide on a sweep .
“When Delbarton came down and scored, we answered. And that’s what the offense is supposed to do,” McLaughlin said. “We trust them, they trust us, and that’s what makes a team.”
The third quarter was much more about resounding stick checks and fiercely contested scrums than shots. Each team connected once, Lane with 1:42 to go for a 5-3 Laker lead, followed by Link to close to within one with 48 seconds to go.
“That’s props both to their poles and our poles. They were doing a great job of getting on the hands when we had shots,” Puke said. “We realized it early that the one-more pass would be a lot more open than the first shot we saw.”
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