BASKING RIDGE — For the Ridge High School boys lacrosse team, defense of last season’s Tournament of Champions title started with a bang.
Behind five goals and an assist from All-American J.T. Palladino and a lock-down effort by its defensive unit, Ridge defeated North Hunterdon 9-5 Wednesday on a windy and frigid afternoon.
Palladino scored twice in the first quarter, twice in the second and once in the fourth to lead the Red Devils (1-0) to a season-opening victory as they look to earn back-to-back Tournament of Champions crowns. Ridge never trailed, although North Hunterdon (0-1) tied the game at 3-3 with consecutive goals early in the second quarter. But, like he’s done many times during the past three seasons, Palladino refused to let his team lose.
“We came out strongly; North played tough with us right from the get-go and we just had to fight for the groundballs and a play physical game. Once we were able to put some in the net it helped us relax,” Palladino said. “Nobody really expects the No. 1 team to lose in its first game, so we just played hard and got out of here with a win.”
Ridge led 6-4 at halftime and really put the clamps down on North Hunterdon’s offense in the second half, yielding just one goal and finishing the game on a 3-0 run. Palladino put it out of reach for good early in the fourth quarter, taking advantage of a gaffe by Lions goalkeeper Zack Koehler, who attempted to clear the zone but lost the ball out of his stick and Palladino was able to walk in for an easy goal.
Matt Mullan, Mike Pellegrino, Gavin Kirkwood and Alex Gaydos also scored for Ridge, which got six saves from goalkeeper Owen Molloy. Even though his squad opened the season with a victory, head coach Ken Marsh wasn’t ready to compliment his players on all they’d accomplished.
“We have a lot of inexperienced guys working with some more experienced players, so we have some guys still trying to figure out what their roles are and how they fit in for us in different situations,” Marsh said. “Overall, I think we struggled a little bit today, but if we can improve on some of those little things, I think we’ll be solid.”
Marsh was quick to compliment North Hunterdon, led by first-year head coach Andrew Conforti. The Lions received a pair of goals from Tom Gallo and additional markers from Rory Alpaugh, Griffin Middleton and Sean Wood. Koehler made five saves for North Hunterdon, including a couple on the doorstep to deny Ridge’s attack.
“North played really hard and gave a great effort against us; hats off to them,” Marsh said. “This is one of the better North teams I’ve seen in the past few years and they gave us a great effort.”
Despite the howling winds and freezing temperatures, Palladino said that he and his teammates were able to stay focused on the task at hand, which was to get off to a winning start.
“We’ve actually had a stretch of warm weather here the last few weeks, so we got used to that, but we were playing in the same weather as they were,” Palladino said. “We just had to get over it, but we have a lot to do after this one. Hopefully we can continue to get better from here.”