#20 Chatham Grinds Out Win in 7-6 Thriller Over #16 Pope John

Photo by: Jason Athey

The Chatham Cougars and Pope John Lions are more than a little familiar with each other. Both teams resided in the Fitch-Pitt Division a season ago, and their divisional matchup ended with a close 9-8 victory for the Lions. The Cougars would not let a fresh opportunity slip away this season on Opening Day, exacting revenge in the form of a nail biting 7-6 decision that came down to the very last play of the game. 

Pope John controlled the game at the beginning, starting with an opening faceoff win by sophomore Mikey Ramirez. Ramirez was 67% at the faceoff after winning eight of the twelve draws he took. He worked the ball around for a shot attempt by senior attackman Eric Vargas that was saved by Chatham goaltender Jac Dimaculangan in a split. The next attempt would find its mark, as Hofstra-bound Jack Sakowski would draw a defender behind the cage before dishing the ball towards the crease to the awaiting stick of Nick McIvor to slam it home. The Lions would find pay dirt once again as sophomore Travis Heller would work his way behind the net before dodging two defenders while crashing forward and working the middle to unleash a perfectly-placed bounce shot. 

With a 2-0 lead, the Pope John defense went to work. They suffocated the middle and did not allow any high danger scoring opportunities. The defense was also busy catching Chatham in transition with freshman Marco Aquino picking up a ground ball from a Martin Heath strip, and moving it across the field to McIvor who was denied by another spectacular save from Dimaculangan. Chatham would cut the lead in half shortly after, adjusting to the heavy clog in the middle and moving the ball around the horn until Doyle Curry slipped next to the crease to receive a pass and drop the ball in the net untouched. Vargas would send a ball off the crossbar before the horn would sound for the end of the first quarter. 

Pope John’s momentum carried into the second quarter in the form of a beautiful goal from Sakowksi after spinning past a defender and stuffing a ball into the goal from the top of the crease. This trend would stop here, as the Cougars’ offensive attack roared back. Curry would find the goal again off a powerful windup on a catch-and-release from the corner that went sizzling into the back of the netting to knot it at two. Senior attackman Luke Barbera would be the second name on the Chatham scoresheet, unwinding a long shot after being blanketed that would find its mark. The Cougars would kill a man down situation, then run the clock down before junior superstar and Virginia commit JP Lagunowich would send a missile at the net from the top of the box that exploded in for a goal with only 4.9 seconds on the clock.

Chatham went into halftime with their first lead of the game and would not give in despite Pope John’s hardest efforts. The Pop John defense did a good job of keeping the ball out of the middle of the field and crease, but Chatham’s sharpshooting offense was still finding its mark with the little they were given. The Cougars’ continued quality possessions in the second quarter set the tone for their comeback. Chatham’s defense forced turnovers and cleared the ball well when called upon. 

The Lions would tie it at four at the beginning of the third, after Ryan McCarthy moved the ball to McIvor, who got the defender to bite on a shot hesitation before unloading for his second goal of the game. Pope John would come close to regaining the lead, but Sakowski’s shot went off the pipe. He would regain possession after blowing up the defender trying to clear, but the Lions could not maintain possession. 

Chatham took back the reins soon after, as Barbera was able to hang on to a ball and score off a clean lane to the net when Heath, his defender, broke his stick on a check. Lagunowich would extend the lead to 6-4 after sending a heat-seeking missile into the top corner of the net from a sharp angle. Pope John continued to press, closing the gap to one goal after a huge Joe Barnish save on a breakaway led to a transition up field that Heller tucked into the goal before the end of the third quarter. 

Curry was not looking to play a close game, firing in his hat trick goal to make it 7-5. Heller would answer back with a hat trick of his own after firing a rolling ball off the turf and by Dimaculangan. With Chatham holding on to a 7-6 lead, the Lions came out firing but the Cougars stood tall. Dimaculangan was doing acrobatics in the final minutes while stopping multiple prime scoring opportunities from Sakowski and Heller. One final shot on goal from Sakowski would beat Dimaculangan but not the post, giving way for a Chatham clear to ice the game and secure the victory.

One of the most intriguing battles of this game was Lagunowich battling with Pope John defenseman Jake Panzer, both ranked four-star juniors by Inside Lacrosse. When they matched up with each other, it was always physical and entertaining. Both players shined at moments throughout the game. 

Dimaculangan made all the difference for the Cougars on opening day. His monumental saves paired with the offensive showings from Curry, Lagunowich, and Barbera led the way for Chatham to start their season off with a big win. This win will certainly be a morale booster, and give them the juice they need as they head into a treacherous stretch with back-to-back matchups against the state’s top two teams in Seton Hall Prep and Delbarton. 

For Pope John, they look to rebound against a solid Caldwell team on Thursday. There were bright spots on the field for the Lions, namely in Sakowski and Heller as well as their close defensemen. They flashed depth, especially with the solid play of two freshmen middies in Marco Aquino, who tallied an assist, as well as Jack Gallucci in their limited action.

What a day it was for the start of the lacrosse season, and neither team disappointed with a phenomenal showing between two Top 20 teams in the state. Both flashed their strengths and played a relatively clean game for the first time facing real action this season.