South Jersey Times boys lacrosse postseason honors, 2022

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Spectators at a championship game rarely walk away raving about how well a member of the losing team played.

After all, it’s only natural to focus on the squad that just secured a title and the stars who made it possible.

Once in a while, however, somebody on the other side makes such an impact that the effort can’t help but steal a little bit of the spotlight from the champions. That’s how good Mario Leone was in this year’s South Jersey, Group 3 boys lacrosse final.

While host Shawnee pulled away for a 14-11 win in a game that was tied in the fourth quarter, Leone almost willed Clearview to its first sectional crown with a performance for the ages. He had a hand in nine of the Pioneers’ goals, scoring six and assisting on three, and seemed to give them a lift every time they needed one.

Although he surely would have preferred a victory to end his memorable career in green and gold, there was no doubt Leone gave his all to a team and school that meant so much to him. The game capped off a special season for both Leone and Clearview and cemented him as the clear choice for South Jersey Times Player of the Year.

“That was the best game I ever played in high school,” Leone said of the South Jersey final, just the second in the history of Clearview’s program. “I think it was because I knew it could have been my last game ever so I had to put it all out on the field and not leave anything behind. If I did, I would have regretted it.”

Clearview coach Rob Rieck had enjoyed a front-row seat to so many of Leone’s great games over the past two years, but even he realized how special his final one was.

“If you put up nine points against that team, you’re the real deal,” he said. “That solidified it in my mind. I look around at the other guys in South Jersey and throughout the state, and I don’t know if there’s another guy who put up nine points against Shawnee. That’s significant because they played a top-tier schedule. After I saw that performance, I was like, ‘Wow. I knew he could play but wow.’”

Leone, a senior attackman, etched his name into the history books by finding the back of the net 86 times, a school record for goals in a season. Not too shabby, considering the program has produced all-time greats like Matt Donnelly and Collin Love.

Coming on the heels of his 54-goal breakout season as a junior, he found a way to raise his game to another level and was second in the state in goals.

“After last season I was very surprised with how I performed and I wanted to take it up (a notch),” he said. “So over the summer I kept working and it paid off. I was able to have an even better season this year and I’m happy with how I played.

“It feels kind of surreal that I was able to put up a school record for most goals in a season, especially with us playing a harder schedule than last year. It makes it feel even more special.”

Leone scored at least one goal in every game for the 13-5 Pioneers, and he recorded a hat trick or better in 17 of the 18 games. He had eight goals on three different occasions.

“We played the best competition to get him prepared and the rest of the guys prepared, and he shined in every game,” Rieck said. “Teams put their best pole on him every game — Division 1 poles — and he still found a way. That’s pretty remarkable.”

Leone even reminded Rieck of Donnelly, who went on to play at Penn State, and not just because of his ability to finish around the net.

“The coolest thing about Mario, and I think this is the greatest compliment I can give him, is that he’s very similar to Matt Donnelly in that he never gets too high when things are rolling and he never gets down when things aren’t going well,” Rieck said. “He’s super even-keeled all the time. He’s focused, he’s dialed in, and that’s so important because it can be such an emotional game. How are you going to react when things aren’t going your way? The biggest attribute that our young kids can learn from him is the way he handles adversity, and when things are going really well he doesn’t get carried away with it.”

That even carried over to after games, when it was common for Leone to deflect any praise sent his way to focus on the team instead.

“I think that comes from me growing up playing hockey and lacrosse,” he said. “Whether I’m having a great game or not my best game, I’m always just the same. I think if I let my emotions get into the game too much, it takes over and I start messing up and getting into my own head. I’m a cool cucumber.”

Leone takes the same approach when talking about his career. Since his sophomore season was canceled because of the pandemic and he had to sit out two weeks of his junior year due to COVID protocols, he missed out on a chance to join Love, Donnelly and Nick Philippi as 200-goal scorers for Clearview.

He finished with 143 goals to go with 51 assists.

“My dad was saying that to me: ‘If you had a sophomore season, you could’ve been up there with Donnelly and Love,’” he said. “Yeah, but I’m still happy with what I was able to accomplish in my three seasons of play.”

Leone got interested in lacrosse from a young age thanks to an older cousin, Christian Gretz, who played at Kingsway and then in college. When he was in middle school, he remembers watching the great Clearview teams starring Donnelly and Love.

He always looked up to those guys and knows that younger players hold this year’s Pioneers in the same regard.

“As I got older, I started seeing them at practices and events and I was able to talk to them, and have them teach me and show me what to do more and what to do less,” he said. “I was able to grow as a player and they helped me a lot with my success, especially Matt this year.

“I can’t wait to see who comes up next and is able to (succeed) like us.”

Leone’s next stop will be Cabrini College, which won a Division 3 national title in 2019. That played a big factor in his interest in the program, and he is looking forward to proving himself at the next level and earning a spot.

But he’ll never forget his time at Clearview, playing with his best friends.

“My experience with Clearview lacrosse was amazing,” he said. “My freshman year I had so much fun, and sophomore year I was even more excited before it got cut off. That was hard but I used it to come back my junior year and show what I had. This year I took it up another notch and it was just amazing playing with all of my friends. I loved all of my coaches and it was honestly the best time. I couldn’t imagine being at another high school.”

TEAM OF THE YEAR

Clearview boys lacrosse

The Clearview boys lacrosse team celebrates its victory in the Gloucester County Cup final.

Sometimes a team comes along with so much talent, so much chemistry and so much determination that even the biggest of challenges, which might seem insurmountable at first, end up being just another obstacle on the way to a special season.

For Clearview, that test came before the season even started, when reigning area Player of the Year Aiden McCullough suffered a devastating shoulder injury at practice. Mario Leone, the Pioneers’ leading scorer, knew immediately that his teammate was in bad shape.

“I saw him go down and when I saw him get back up, I could see it in his face. He had no expression,” Leone said. “We kept practicing or doing our scrimmage, and the next day Aiden came late to practice because he was at the doctor’s office. He went up to one of our coaches and just hugged him. From there, I knew he wasn’t playing for the rest of the year and it was a tough pill to swallow, because I grew up playing with the kid and he’s one of my best friends. It was hard not being able to play my senior year with him.

“We struggled through so much adversity this year, especially with losing Aiden, our No. 1 defender, and another defender who was starting, John Sylvester,” Leone continued. “Not having them really made it a struggle but we kept playing for them and I think we did a pretty good job for them.”

Clearview managed to not only survive those key injuries but find a way to thrive. The Pioneers compiled a 13-5 record, won their second straight division and Gloucester County Cup titles, and reached the South Jersey, Group 3 final for just the second time in program history before dropping a 14-11 thriller to Shawnee. Now they can add South Jersey Times Team of the Year to their collection.

“When I look back on the season, I think about how fun it was,” Leone said. “Everybody was healthy and safe, there were no (COVID) shutdowns. It was a lot of fun just being out with the guys.”

Of course, it didn’t start out that way when McCullough, who had battled the shoulder injury during football season, aggravated it and was diagnosed with a torn labrum that required surgery. A Division 1 recruit headed to High Point, he was considered one of the best defenders in South Jersey.

“Aiden is a difference-maker,” Clearview coach Rob Rieck said. “He would have changed the season for us. We had a phenomenal season but it might be a different story right now.

“We had questions about our defense to begin with because we graduated some (key) guys. I’ll be honest, when that happened we really weren’t sure. But we had a good group of young men and we knew we just had to keep plugging along. We didn’t have a choice, it wasn’t like they were going to say, ‘The season’s over, let’s go home.’ We watched a lot of film, we did a lot of scouting and we did our best to scheme and game plan.”

Another injury, to senior Liam Reilly, turned out to be a blessing. With him sitting out about 10 days, freshman TJ Mills was forced to take his position at defensive middie. When Reilly returned, Rieck moved him to McCullough’s old spot and kept Mills in the lineup.

“That was a difference-maker for us,” Rieck said. “It made matchups that much easier. TJ stepped into that position at defensive mid and thrived right away, and we moved Liam to close defense. We didn’t lose anything at defensive mid but we got better at close D. Liam helped us with our transition game and he was able to match up with the big guys, and he did really well at it.”

The veteran attack, meanwhile, was clicking on all cylinders with Leone, Riley Burns and Conner Reagan all making major contributions. The three of them had played attack together since they first started in the youth lacrosse program with Burns’ dad as their coach.

“Riley was always setting us up when we were very little and he still sets us up in high school,” Leone said. “We can be running up the field and we don’t even need to see each other, we just know where everyone is. It’s crazy how much chemistry we all have together.”

The Gramaglia brothers — senior goalie Vittorio, senior LSM Antonio and junior faceoff specialist/midfielder Vincenzo — were other key players along with junior midfielder Landon Scully, sophomore midfielder Carter Bobbitt and promising freshmen Mills, Sean Ralph and JD Steidle. Put it all together and the Pioneers cruised to the SJILL American Division crown before beating rival Kingsway 15-8 for the Gloucester County Cup.

They won their first two playoff games easily to earn a rematch with Ocean City in the sectional semifinals, which had defeated Clearview at the same point the year before. This time, the Pioneers overcame an early deficit and dominated the final three quarters on their way to a 15-8 win.

“The kids got the momentum and they just never let it go,” Rieck said. “That’s what we were working toward. All season we were hoping for a breakout game against a good team, and that was the perfect time to do it. It was a lot of fun to coach that game. They executed things offensively and defensively and put it all together, for sure.”

That sent Clearview to the sectional final for the second time ever, where the Pioneers played a memorable game at Shawnee. The back-and-forth contest was tied in the fourth quarter before the Renegades pulled away for a 14-11 victory.

“That was an even battle, without a doubt,” Rieck said. “We struggled clearing the ball at times, which hurt us, and we had some difficulty at the faceoffs. From the restraining box to the restraining box is where the game is won, so that was tough. But they were in the South Jersey final last year and they were a young team. They returned two All-Americans on that team so they were certainly talented and certainly belonged there. They were a class act and I was happy for them. It’s not exactly how we wanted to end our season but there was certainly nothing left on the field.”

Clearview will bring back some important players next year but will look a lot different without a stellar senior class. But those veterans can look back proudly at how they are leaving the program.

“We all started in third or fourth grade together and we’re all best friends,” Leone said. “We stuck with it through high school and we were able to accomplish great things.”

COACH OF THE YEAR

Boys Lacrosse: Cherokee defeats Kingsway 11-8.

Kingsway head coach Kevin Miller guided his team to a 10-win improvement this spring.Tom Horak | For NJ Advance Media

Coming into a new season, it’s easy to judge a team by its wins and losses from the year before.

But Kingsway coach Kevin Miller knew that anyone who saw his Dragons in that light were in for a rude awakening.

After a rough go in his first year leading the program in 2021, Miller was confident of a quick turnaround, and that’s exactly what transpired this spring. He guided Kingsway to an 11-7 record — a 10-win improvement — along with its first playoff win in five years, and has been named South Jersey Times Coach of the Year for his efforts.

Not many people saw this season coming for the Dragons, except those close to the program.

“Absolutely I did, and our entire coaching staff did,” Miller said. “We understand the type of talent we have at Kingsway and we know our kids. People see our record from last year, they see the 1-14 season, but if you look a little closer you see that eight or nine of those losses were by two goals or less. We played a lot of close games against good teams. I think we were lacking chemistry, and we were a young and inexperienced team. But we knew we had a ton of talent and a bunch of guys coming back. To see the way it came together was awesome.”

Kingsway quickly put away the bad memories from last year with a 3-0 start, all by double digits. The Dragons were consistent throughout the season and earned a chance to play for the Gloucester County Cup before falling to Clearview for the third time.

“I have a ton of respect for that Clearview team,” Miller said. “They were one of the tougher teams we played all year and we were fortunate to play them three times since we made the Gloucester County Cup. Coming into the season I asked our players a goal they had, and a lot of them said to play for and win the Gloucester County Cup.”

The Dragons were able to recover from that loss and rally for an 8-7 victory over Washington Township in the first round of the South Jersey, Group 4 playoffs. Reilly Robichaud netted the game-winner in overtime.

“We had a handful of overtime games last year and this year and we never came out on top,” Miller said. “To finally come out on top in a playoff game in that atmosphere was great. We played early in the day and we had a huge fan section out there from our school. It was an awesome environment and that was certainly a highlight of our season. To come back after a one-win season and win a playoff game at home was awesome.”

Kingsway’s season eventually came to an end with a 15-10 loss to Lenape in the quarterfinals, but a foundation has been established. A strong core will return next year, including leading scorer Jake Mason, and Miller is excited to see what happens next.

For now, though, he is proud to be recognized for what his team accomplished this year.

“I was not expecting that at all,” he said. “It was absolutely an amazing year, but I have a ton of respect for the coaches in South Jersey; I know there are a lot of outstanding coaches who had amazing seasons this year. So this is a nice surprise.”

ALL-AREA TEAM

Riley Burns, Clearview, Senior

Burns, who suffered a broken hand and missed a big chunk of his junior season, made up for lost time this spring. He was an elite playmaker at attack for the Pioneers and finished second in the South Jersey Times coverage area with 54 assists. He also could finish himself when necessary and scored 45 goals, good for seventh on the area list. His highlights included eight goals and four assists in a win over Kingsway and four goals and five assists to help Clearview beat Ocean City in the sectional semifinals. He will continue his career at Stockton.

Owen Champigny, Woodstown, Senior

Champigny, an attackman, ended his standout career at Woodstown with 69 goals, third-best in the South Jersey Times coverage area. He scored in every game to help the Wolverines go 11-4 and he had at least five goals on eight occasions. That prolific output helped him finish with 142 goals in three seasons, making him Woodstown’s all-time leading scorer. Champigny also increased his playmaking this year and posted a career-high 26 assists.

Antonio Gramaglia, Clearview, Senior

A fixture at LSM the last two years, Gramaglia was a key piece of a Clearview defense that got better and better as the season progressed. He also could help out offensively when called upon and finished with six goals and 12 assists. His veteran leadership was crucial in helping the Pioneers go 13-5 and reach the sectional championship game for the second time in program history.

Vittorio Gramaglia, Clearview, Senior

In his second season as Clearview’s starting goalie, Gramaglia looked even more comfortable in the role and built on the potential he flashed as a junior. He recorded over 140 saves, including a season-high of 15, which he reached twice, in a loss to St. Augustine and a win over Ocean City in the sectional semifinals. He had eight games where he allowed five or fewer goals.

Alex Kunicki, Washington Township, Senior

Kunicki, a midfielder, was not supposed to play at all this year after suffering a broken wrist in the preseason. But he gutted it out and still served as a leader and top contributor for the Minutemen despite being limited by the injury. A Player of the Year candidate as a junior when he had 46 goals and 18 assists, Kunicki posted 29 goals and 16 assists this season. He is headed to Montclair State.

Mario Leone, Clearview, Senior

Leone, a dynamic attackman, scored 86 goals to lead the area, finish second in the state and set a school record for a single season. The South Jersey Times Player of the Year had at least a hat trick in 17 of the Pioneers’ 18 games and added 25 assists. Leone ended his career with 143 goals and 51 assists in three seasons. He will play collegiately at Division 3 powerhouse Cabrini.

Matt Marino, Kingsway, Senior

They don’t come much tougher than Marino. Playing the entire year with a torn labrum that required surgery after the season, he was still a difference-maker for the Dragons. He moved from the midfield to his natural position at attack and led the South Jersey Times coverage area with 59 assists, including six in a playoff win over Washington Township. Despite wearing a brace that limited his shooting ability, he also scored 29 goals. Marino is headed to Widener to continue his career.

Jake Mason, Kingsway, Junior

Despite scoring 45 goals as a sophomore in his first high school lacrosse season, Mason flew under the radar because Kingsway won just one game. But the Dragons were much improved this spring and their explosive attackman was a major reason for the turnaround. He exploded for 81 goals — third-best in the state — to go with 25 assists, and posted at least two points in every game. He twice scored a career-high eight goals in a game. Mason will be a leading contender for Player of the Year honors next season as a senior before moving on to play Division 1 lacrosse at Air Force.

Giuseppe Morici, Washington Township, Senior

Morici lived up to his billing as one of the best FOGOs in the state, once again showing his toughness to win nearly 80 percent of the faceoffs he took and tying for the South Jersey lead with 247 wins. He also picked up 186 ground balls, one more than his total in 2021, and took his offense to the next level with the Minutemen in need of more scoring. He netted a team-high 36 goals — including four games with five goals, all wins — and added 14 assists. Morici will play Division 1 lacrosse at St. Joseph’s.

Conner Reagan, Clearview, Senior

The third member of Clearview’s potent attack to be named to the all-area team, Reagan was a fiery leader for the Pioneers and seemed to step up at crucial moments. He was eighth in the area with 40 goals and fourth with 34 assists, and had huge games in the playoffs, including three goals and five assists in a win over Ocean City in the sectional semifinals and three goals and one assist in a loss to Shawnee in the final. Reagan, who finished his career with 68 goals and 60 assists, will be playing junior hockey next year.

Liam Reilly, Clearview, Senior

Reilly moved from defensive middie to close defense early in the season, and the way he stepped up to replace injured star Aiden McCullough was one of the keys to Clearview’s successful campaign. He was usually given the assignment of containing the opponent’s best scorer, and more times than not was able to limit his opportunities with a combination of athleticism and strength. Reilly will continue his career at Widener.

Conlon Stasium, Williamstown, Senior

A midfielder, Stasium was once again an explosive scorer for the Braves as he increased his goal total from 34 as a junior to 63, fourth-best in the South Jersey Times coverage area. He had at least a hat trick in 12 different games, including a career-high nine in a win over Timber Creek. Stasium also handed out 17 assists and scooped up 97 ground balls to help Williamstown go 8-8.

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