For the second straight year, the Hopewell Valley Central High School boys’ lacrosse team has made a mark for itself in the South Jersey, Group 2 state tournament.

A year ago, as the No, 12 seed, the Bulldogs won a pair of games before falling to Somerville in the state sectional semifinals. To prove that last year was no fluke, Hopewell Valley has enjoyed similar success this season.

The sixth-seeded Bulldogs opened state tournament play with a 9-4 victory over Ocean Township before going on the road to knock off third-seeded Wall, 8-7, last Saturday and set up a rematch with Somerville in a game that was scheduled to be played on Wednesday.    

“I thought we had a pretty competitive non-conference schedule that helped prepare us,” said Hopewell Valley coach Matt Foret, whose team took a 12-7 record into the game at second-seeded Somerville. “If you look at our schedule, most of our games were two goal games or closer. We had very few blowouts. We beat East Brunswick by a goal. We beat AL Johnson in overtime. We had a couple other tight games with Hillsborough and Immaculata. So we purposely scheduled this way because we wanted to play people we would be in tight games with so the kids would be comfortable in these situations.”

Of the Bulldogs' seven losses, only two came by more than three goals. They were close in every game and were prepared once the postseason got started.

“In the middle of the year we weren’t hitting on all cylinders,” senior defender Steven Doldy said. “The past couple of games we have been doing well. Against Wall, we held a team that was averaging 14 goals a game to just seven. We have had guys step up when we needed them. Chris Hollander went down last game and JT (Saul) stepped up and had a great game.

“We’re excited. I think we had unfinished business. Last year was heartbreaking and now we’re going to play in the same place as last year where our season ended.”

One big difference between this year and a year ago is the Bulldogs entered the postseason off of a much better regular season. A year ago they were just 5-10 before winning games at Seneca and Robbinsville before dropping a 9-8 decision to Somerville.

“We were coming into the season with a lot of returning starters,” Doldy said. “We knew a lot of the players that were role players could handle bigger roles now, like Zach Crow. They all have their roles on the offense. Devin (Higgins) is the feeder. Dylan (Tomarchio) is the all-around guy. Zach is the dodger. Anthony (Azara) is the finisher. Every guy on the offense has a role and they do it well. 

“I think our offense and our defense make each other better. We know our defense is better than a lot of the defenses we play and our offense gives us a good look in practice to help us prepare.”

Tomarchio had four goals in the victory over Wall, while Louis Azara, Spencer Bell, Doldy and Henry McMahon added a goal apiece.

Doldy has been the leader of a staunch defense. He’s developed into one of the top long-pole defenders in the Colonial Valley Conference and this season has been his best yet as he has recorded 150 ground balls and caused more than 70 turnovers.

“He creates so many possessions for us and that allows our offense to thrive,” Foret said. “During the season our defense has been up and down. We felt that it would be a strength coming into the season. Ryan Pisauro is a new goalie for us. He had been the backup. But the defense is where our seniors are. Steven Doldy and Dave Mezynski and Pete Demareski are all guys who have played a lot of minutes. Chris Hollander is only a junior but he has a lot of experience. 

“In the middle of the season we had some games where we struggled. So this last part of the season we have been able to figure out what it was we had trouble doing and have had some more defensive-minded practice and our defense has responded and is playing well in the state tournament.”

Having someone like Doldy certainly helps. He started his lacrosse career as an offensive player when he was younger. He spent some time as a goalie, but as a high school player has settled in as a defender.

“Creating a turnover is just as good a feeling as scoring as a defender,” said Doldy, who plays to play football at the Virginia Military Institute. “Scoring a goal is really good. But creating a turnover that gets the team a goal is the best feeling.”

And the offense has responded with big years from so many different players. Tomarchio leads the team with 54 goals, while Crow has 35, Anthony Azara has 30, Bell has 22 and Louis Azara has added 18.  

“Offensively, it has been a pleasant surprise this year,” Foret said. “Just about everyone is performing at a higher level than they did last year. Dylan is a three-year starter and when you look at his point totals he has made a nice progression from sophomore year to last year and now he has over 50 goals which is a big step forward, Zach Crow played a lot last year but didn’t contribute a lot offensively and this year he has 30 goals, so he has made a big jump forward to being one of top midfielders in the conference.

“Devin Higgins is a sophomore who we moved to attack from the midfield three or four games into the season. He had one goal and a couple of assists at the time and now he is one of the top assist guys in the area (with 43 assists). Anthony Azara played some last year and took a huge step forward. And we get contributions from the other guys. Louis Azara is a freshman and has been consistent. Along with Kenny Abey and Spencer Bell we feel like we have got six or seven kids kids we can put on the field and be comfortable with to dodge and score.”

When it all comes together like it has in the first two games of the state tournament, it makes the Bulldogs a very tough team to beat.

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