It was a memorable year, with championships, banners and significant milestones, for the Pope John XXIII Regional High School boys lacrosse program.
The Lions posted an overall record of 14-4, capturing the New Jersey Indoor Lacrosse League (NJILL) Waterman Division title and the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex Tournament championship along the way.
Veteran head coach Chris Hoffman earned his 100th career victory May 30, when Pope John topped Notre Dame in the opening round of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non Public Group A Tournament.
“The very first game against a very talented Chatham team was a tough one-goal loss but would spark the competitiveness for the remainder of the season,’’ he said. “Big wins over Waterman teams like Caldwell, Mendham, Glen Ridge, Randolph and Bernards (are memorable).
“The H/W/S championship game versus Hunterdon Central at Sparta High School was the biggest win. On a hot day in the middle of May, the Lions were in control of most of the game until Hunterdon Central tied the score up late in the fourth quarter. Both teams had their chances in OT to win the game, but sophomore Travis Heller was able to force a turnover and pick a ground ball that would lead to his own breakaway and gave him a chance to get a shot off and put the Lions on top.’’
Leadership was important for the Lions this spring.
“Joseph Barnish was the backbone of the defense year, making 203 saves on the year with a .68 save percentage,’’ Hoffman said. “He came up big in the Randolph game, making 17 saves and notching 20 saves against Glen Ridge.
“Nick Caruso, Tony Cuccio and Martin Heath were tenacious defenders for the Lions along with senior long-stick midfielder Kyle Obaytek and junior LSM Jake Panzer.
“Short-stick defensive midfielders Wes Taylor and Jack Kelmer provided the athleticism and intelligence to lock down opposing players. The attack for the Lions was very productive, (senior) Jack Sakowski, (senior) Eric Vargas and (sophomore) Travis Heller worked close together both taking care of the ball and giving the offense great scoring opportunities but also being fearless in the riding game.’’
A number of student athletes improved during the season, including a member of the Class of 2024.
“Junior Johans Bars started gaining more confidence offensively and it propelled our offense,’’ the coach said. “He is a bigger kid that when given time and room, he can really rip it. He became more involved in the offense and it helped us put more points on the board.’’
Pope John was 7-0 in the NJILL Waterman Division. The team advanced to the quarterfinal round of the NJSIAA Non Public Group A Tournament, where it was defeated by Don Bosco Prep.
Hoffman is very optimistic about the future.
“Players from this year’s team have experience of playing in big games. They know what it takes to win a division, a county championship and a state title. When these kids have been exposed to these game situations in actual games, they learn from experience and that is when the younger guys have to assume those roles heading into next year.’’
These are season honors, provided by the coach:
• Mike Squillante was awarded Assistant Coach of the Year for New Jersey.
• First Team Waterman: Jack Sakowski, Nick Caruso and Joseph Barnish.
• Second Team Waterman: Nick McIvor and Johans Bars.
• Honorable Mention Waterman: Mikey Ramirez.
• First Team Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference American Division: Joseph Barnish.
• Second Team NJAC : Mikey Ramirez.
• Honorable Mention NJAC: Nick McIvor.
• Second Team All State Attack: Jack Sakowski.
• Honorable Mention All State Attack: Travis Heller.
• Honorable Mention All State Goalie: Joseph Barnish.
“The H/W/S championship game versus Hunterdon Central at Sparta High School was the biggest win. ... Both teams had their chances in OT to win the game, but sophomore Travis Heller was able to force a turnover and pick a ground ball that would lead to his own breakaway and gave him a chance to get a shot off and put the Lions on top.’’ - Chris Hoffman, head boys lacrosse coach, Pope John XXIII Regional High School