Garden State Challenge showcases area’s best

 By Mark Kitchin


 MADISON–Mount Olive’s Chris Sanchez just wants to keep the lacrosse stick in his hands over the summer months. And if college coaches want to get a look at him play, so much the better.

Sanchez isn’t the only one. There were about 125 lacrosse players on the Madison fields last Thursday competing as part of the Garden State Lacrosse Challenge games. Five teams make up the North contingent. There are also another five teams that will be representing South Jersey. The 10 teams will converge this Wednesday when the showcase tournament will be concluded on the fields at Bridgewater-Raritan High School.

The annual event has been reconfigured slightly this year but the aim is basically the same. The games provide a competitive tournament for scholastic underclassmen to start the summer season and a showcase for college scouts to identify future athletes.

Two of the teams have a strong affiliation with Morris County. The Morris East squad is coached by Kinnelon’s Kevin Kelly and Morris West and Sussex led by West Morris coach Rob Goodwin. Teams from Bergen and Passaic, Essex and Union county make up the other three North squads.

Mount Olive’s Chris Sanchez (right) is one of many competing in the Garden State Challenge games this week. Photo by Mark Kitchin

Sanchez is a member of Morris West squad with Mount Olive teammate Greg Novick. After a break out year with the Marauders, which finished 17-3, Sanchez is one of many stick wielding athletes facing a busy summer of tournaments and competition which may determine his lacrosse future.

“I heard about the Garden State Games through my high school coach (David Gallucci),’’ Sanchez said. “He told me to come and try out. I just wanted to play a little more during the summer and keep the stick in my hands and just keep on getting better.’’

The seeding games on Thursday determined the matchups for Wednesday’s games. They also help the athletes get a rapport with their teammates, since there is limited time to practice.

“It’s really good (competition),’’ Sanchez said. “It’s almost like All-Star teams.  You learn to play with new players. It’s a different season. We are simplifying things; its fun to play with new guys, learn different things, and improve your skills.’’

Two teams with Morris County players will be competing on the fields at Bridgewater-Raritan on Wednesday. Photo by Mark Kitchin.

The challenge games are a direct descendent of the Garden State Games, an Olympic-style summer festival that was held in New Jersey in the late 1980s, reminiscent of New York’s Empire Games. When the festival ended because of budget cuts, the New Jersey Chapter of  U.S. Lacrosse picked it up and turned it into a college showcase that drew coaches across the nation to see New Jerseybest play each other. The number of teams increased along with the growth of the sport.

Times have changed in all aspects of the event over the last 20 years. Elite team tournaments and showcase games are weekly occurrences through the summer now, but the Garden State Games still hold the reputation as good competition in a relaxed atmosphere. A dozen coaches took in the action on Thursday and many more are expected this Wednesday.

“I think it’s really important,’’ Kinnelon coach Kevin Kelly said. “I think it’s good for New Jersey lacrosse in general. I think the kids need to play with other kids in this kind of environment where you are playing for something for pride in New Jersey  — in your area. Every year I’ve been involved it’s a lot of fun and that’s part of the game that sometimes gets lost when you are in the season and in the grind. I think this is a lot of fun for the kids.’’

Another aspect that has changed involves recruiting. Athletes are identified and commit verbally to college teams earlier and earlier in recent years. However, those that decide not to come out because they have already made a college decision may be missing a unique opportunity.

“They don’t feel the need to come to this because it’s a recruiting event – which it is — but the kids that are committed should be coming out because we want to showcase their talent,’’ Kelly said. “The kids that aren’t committed are only going to benefit from competing against the kids that are playing.’’

Players on the Morris East team scramble in front of their net during seeding games last Thursday. Photo by Mark Kitchin.

The event has not lost its luster, even among athletes that are already playing on programs that have reputations for strong lacrosse.

“In my town it’s a pretty big honor,’’Mountain Lakes sophomore goalkeeper Paul Kimmelman said. “It’s definitely a competitive group of kids. It’s a very big deal to make the team. I was very excited. It’s an honor to play with some of the best kids not only in my grade but older.’’

Kimmelman said the tryouts were intense. He and Kinnelon’s John Calia were two of six goalies who tried out during the 2 ½ hour session that was held at ISP inRandolph.

“I definitely wanted more competition to play with,’’ Kimmelman said. “Coach (Tim) Flynn said it would be good exposure, especially for coaches. I think it was a great choice.

“The games have been competitive, very fast paced. There have been a lot of fast breaks. The past two games we’ve had have gone into overtime and are exciting.’’

Montville’s Jake Haimson has gained a little notice that goes with scoring 78 goals during the high school season. Although the Mustangs don’t get the attention of some of the more recognizable New Jersey high school programs, he feels the event will get coaches to put a face to a name.

“I think it’s great,’’ Haimson said. “It gets me playing with other great players from around the area. It’s good college exposure. Some of the college coaches can come out and watch. It’s a really great experience.’’

There are enough events going on during the summer, so if a player has a bad performance, he can make up for it at another tournament. Haimson and the other players believe the pressure of being critiqued by college coaches just goes with the territory.

“You have to play through it,’’ Haimson said. “The more you think about it the more you over think it and it affects you in a negative way.’’

Haimson has a simple strategy for getting noticed – just go for it.

“You have to take the ball to the net and make sure you get seen,’’ Haimson said.


About mcvbb

Mark Kitchin is a boys varsity basketball writer for the Morris County New Jersey area

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