STAFFORD TOWNSHIP — The Southern Regional High School boys lacrosse team’s defense proved that even a small lead was more than enough.

The fifth-seeded Rams suffocated vising Howell, the No. 12 seed, to win a rain-soaked 4-2 game Wednesday in the first round of the South Jersey Group IV playoffs. On a day when the Rams’ offense wasn’t fully clicking, the defense played at peak performance.

“I’m very happy,” Southern senior defender Luke Gerhardt said. “You could tell our offense has been struggling a bit lately, and we’ve been the backbone of the team for most of the year so we just have to come together.”

Southern heads to fourth-seeded Monroe Township for a quarterfinal matchup 11 a.m. Saturday. Monroe beat Cherry Hill East 13-5 in its first-round game Wednesday.

Southern’s defense was tremendous, led by junior goalie Luke Maul, who made 11 saves. The starting unit of Gerhardt, Noah Wasacz and Denis Osborn led the effort surrounding Maul.

“They gave me a lot of confidence,” said Maul, 17, of Manahawkin, who made eight saves in the half. “They usually always come out this well, so that’s a big help.”

With rains pounding the Southern football field since last night, conditions were less than optimal for both teams. Players often slipped when making cuts, and both teams struggled with scooping ground balls on the soft, wet playing surface. Unforced turnovers were high as well.

Southern coach John Pampalone admitted the conditions were a factor, as was the style of play for Howell.

“They play a real slow game,” Pampalone said. “We played them earlier in the year (and won 9-3), and we knew the style they play. We knew defensively we could stay in our zone, and they would have trouble creating offense.”

Howell went up 1-0 with 4 minutes, 18 seconds left in the first on Vaughn Meehan’s goal. Southern tied it up in the final seconds when Ben LoParo found Aniello Russo.

LoParo put Southern up 2-1 early in the second. With a flag already on the field and Southern keeping the play alive, LoParo caught a deflected ball out of the air and scored. If the ball had hit the ground before he caught it, play would have been blown dead on the delayed penalty.

Howell aimed to control possession in the second half, often times bordering on stalling. After a possession that easily eclipsed three minutes, Southern extended its lead to 3-1 on Cade Johnson’s goal.

Just 13 seconds later, Anthony Firmani won the faceoff and extended the lead to 4-1.

“Once we get a cushion it’s always a little bit easier on the defense knowing if we only let in one it won’t break the game,” said Gerhardt, 17, of Manahawkin. “We just had to play our game until the offense started clicking. Then they found the two goals and gave us a little breathing room, but then we had to lock them down.”

Howell had another long possession to open the fourth quarter, scoring nearly four minutes in to make it 4-2. But Southern stayed in its zone, and patience allowed the Rams to prevail.

“We knew in the beginning of the year this team would be built on our defense, and our offense would hopefully come along, and it has at times” Pampalone said. “Coach (Mike) Jinks, our defensive coordinator, has done a tremendous job of instituting a system and plugging people in. No matter how deep we go we do a great job.”

Contact: 609-272-7210

Twitter @ACPress_Russo

Howell 1 0 0 1—2

Southern 1 1 2 0—4

Goals—Meehan, Fay H. Russo, LoParo, Johnson, Firmani SR.

Goalies—Roberto 10 H. Maul 11 SR.

Records—Howell 9-8, Southern 14-4.

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Contact: 609-272-7210

​JRusso@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPress_Russo

I graduated from Rowan University in 2011 where I studied journalism. I covered local high school and college sports at the South Jersey Times and Vineland Daily Journal. I have been a sports reporter with The Press since July of 2013

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