Heller Vanquishes Red Devils With Golden Goal, #13 Lions Reclaim H/W/S Throne

Heart throbbing. Legs burning. Adrenaline coursing.

Pope John Lions sophomore attackmen Travis Heller “was just trying to make [something] happen” while he hunted down Hunterdon Central Red Devils’ midfielder Danny Loss, staying true to his mascot and tracking Loss as a lion stalks a gazelle. 

When Heller reached Loss as he was trying to clear, he executed a perfectly placed check on the knob of the stick and sent the ball out of the Ithaca-bound midfielder's pocket. Heller scooped up the loose change, changed direction around junior defenseman John Flynn and faked a shot on the doorstep of the crease before dumping the ball over the shoulder of goaltender Robert Turnbull. The celebration was on immediately as he never slowed pace, rounding the net with his arms in the air, helmet and gloves flying to meet his teammates on the sideline. The sophomore’s golden goal in overtime vanquished the Red Devils back to Hunterdon County empty-handed.

The Lions' start was not the one they were looking for. They got into penalty trouble early, including having to fend off a Hunterdon Central EMO opportunity with only four long poles on the field and stalwart goaltender Joe Barnish in the box. The Red Devils, in unfamiliar territory as underdogs in the county championship, took advantage of Pope John’s early woes to the tune of a natural hat trick from Loss on three nearly identical opportunities off to the right side of the crease. The Lions would find the back of the net before the end of the quarter, however, trailing just 3-2 going into the second after a goal from freshman Marco Aquino. 

The second quarter is where Pope John showed why they are highly rated across the state. Georgian Court-bound Barnish made key saves and his steady defense consisting of Stockton-bound Anthony Cuccio, Sacred Heart-bound Nick Caruso, three-star junior prospect Jake Panzer, senior Martin Heath, and LSM Kyle Obaytek did what they are known for: keeping high-level opponents off the board. They shut out the Red Devils going into the half and the Lions responded with five unanswered behind junior Johans Bars, who finished with a hat trick, and his blistering shot. 

Most importantly for the Lions, was Red Devils’ star and Maryland-bound faceoff man Sean Creter had been held off the score sheet and was not dominating the draw in the same manner he had all season. Creter came into the game with a winning percentage of almost 80%, but Lions sophomore Mikey Ramirez was keeping up with him all afternoon. Creter won the battle at the end of the day, taking 14 of the 25 attempts but Ramirez was on top of him all the way through. The sophomore not only was able to win draws at a good rate, but was able to force turnovers even when Creter won by staying involved and defending physically. His efforts on the draw, as well as the goal he scored off a rush from a clean win, earned him the honor of MVP. His ability in this game can not be overlooked and will make many across the state turn their heads in his direction.

Creter may not have been a big factor in the second half, but his impact was definitely felt towards the end of the game. He finished with two goals and some big wins at the end of the contest, scoring one of two goals towards the end of regulation to climb out of a 10-8 deficit and force an overtime period. Arguably the state’s best player, he made his presence known in his final HWS game.

With Heller’s golden goal, and three assists also chipped in for a four point day, the only time Sparta High School has ever been good to Pope John is in the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex boy’s lacrosse finals. The last two times the event was hosted at Cassels Field (2021 and 2023) the Lions have captured their first two tri-county titles on their crosstown rivals' own turf. This season’s win made them the second team with multiple championships, Hunterdon Central winning 11 of the previous 14 and the only other trophies belonging to North Hunterdon (2016) and Sparta (2014). 

Another question raised after this moment is not only what is, but what could have been the legacy of Pope John’s 14-member Class of 2023. Had the coronavirus pandemic not canceled the 2020 season, the Lions would have trotted out what may have been considered their best team ever fielded. Laden with area stars and current college hammers Dane Armstrong (UMBC-FO), Jack Clifford (Siena-A), David Jagiello (Stockton-M), Sean Brennan (Rutgers-D), Gabe Cummins (Lafayette-G), Connor Herraiz (Cabrini-A), and even more. This year's senior class had players that would have made an immediate impact for that team as freshmen, and would have made them the H/W/S favorite and a top team in the state. They certainly led this team to victory in this county title game. Barnish stopped 14 of the 23 shots sent his way, including some big ones while down a man. Hofstra-bound Jack Sakowski had a goal and an assist, as did Nick McIvor and Ryan McCarthy. Susquehanna-bound Lucas Biddescombe and Tommy Smaldone also found the back of the net. The defensive play of Caruso, Cuccio, Heath, Obaytek, and SSDMs Wes Taylor and Jack Kelmer were key, especially in disrupting the Red Devils late in the game. It was a complete effort by this deep class, who knew they would have to be on top of their game to bring back another trophy. While the “what-ifs” are enticing, already holding two county championships, some big program wins, a Waterman Division title, a competitive season in the Fitch-Pitt Division, and becoming a mainstay in the state rankings, the mark left on the program by the Class of 2023 will be talked about for years.