OCEAN CITY — Joe LaTorre has been coaching the Ocean City boys lacrosse team for nearly a decade now, methodically building the program, brick-by-brick, piece-by-piece, to be able to compete with the elite programs in the state. In the past couple of years, the Red Raiders have been tantalizingly close to playing for a South Jersey Group 3 championship, but have had to settle for being the bridesmaid and not the bride.

On Monday at Carey Stadium, that all changes. The Red Raiders have earned their way to the big dance.

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They did so in dramatic fashion, getting a tremendous effort from the defense and some fourth-quarter heroics from pint-sized senior Jake Schneider, who stands all of about 5-foot-5 but scored two goals in the fourth quarter on Saturday afternoon to lift top-seeded Ocean City past No 4 Clearview, 7-5. The win puts Ocean City into the sectional title game for the first time in program history. The Red Raiders will take on No. 2 Shawnee, a 13-10 winner over No. 3 Moorestown and the team that eliminated Ocean City in the 2019 sectional semifinal.

“We’ve been waiting a long time to get back on the field (for a game like this). The last time we were here playing in a South Jersey semifinal, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to and that’s the one thing we stressed. We were the higher seed, but that doesn’t mean anything when you’re going up against a team like (Clearview). Those guys were hungry and they really gave us their all,” said Ocean City senior middie Brady Rauner. “That was sitting in the back of my head at halftime, 24 minutes to go, up by four goals. All we had to do was finish. The same thing happened my freshman year (against Mainland), we went into halftime up three or four goals in the CAL championship and they ended up coming back and beating us. We just emphasized finishing and getting out of here with a win; surviving and advancing.”

Ocean City (12-6) looked to be in control as the Raiders took a 4-1 lead into halftime thanks to first-quarter goals from Pat Grimley, Schneider and Jack Davis, and another in the second from Schneider. But the Pioneers (12-3) came storming back in the third quarter, scoring three times to tie the game 4.

“I’ve been here four years and we work out tails off every day. Starting March 1, our tryouts are the hardest thing you could ever imagine, and that prepares us for anything we face throughout the season,” said J.P. Patella, another Ocean City senior middie. “Of course it was a little scary when they were coming back, but we had to stay focused. We knew what we had to do when it was tied, 4-4. We knew we had to give it all we had. We prepare so hard for every game. We watch hours of film, we know what’s coming based on their offense and we know everything we have to do. We’re always preparing.”

The Red Raiders grabbed a 5-4 lead early in the fourth on a goal from Rauner, who came around the net and ripped a shot past Clearview goalie Vincenzo Gramaglia, who had an outstanding game with 10 saves. Clearview answered on a goal from Mario Leone off a pass from Evan Niewoehner with 6:01 remaining. Less than two minutes later, however, Schneider gave Ocean City the lead for good as he worked his way from behind the net to sneak around and put one into the cage. He made it 7-5 with 2:16 remaining as he came from behind the net again, worked his way to the top of the crease and ripped a low, bouncing shot past Gramaglia.

Schneider finished with four goals and two assists, Rauner had a goal and an assist, and Ocean City goalie Gavin Jackson finished with six saves for the win.

“That’s my boy,” Rauner said of Schneider, “we’ve been playing lacrosse together since third grade. He’s one of those guys we call a dog, he’s never going to give up. The kid is getting hacked and just running through people. That’s one thing he understands and we take pride in telling him that it’s not about how big you are, it’s all about heart. That’s one thing a lot of Ocean City kids play with, is heart.

“I’m just so proud of how these guys kept their composure in the fourth quarter when everything was going wrong,” LaTorre said. “But I don’t think there’s a team in the state that has faced more adversity than us. At the beginning of our season we lost 34 guys due to Covid contact tracing. On top of that we’ve had nightmare scenarios with losing starters (to injury), and we had a big game against Monroe and our bus broke down on the Parkway when it was about 85 degrees. We’re going a team that’s in the sectional semifinals right now and we’re on the side of the Parkway for an hour and a half, baking, waiting for another bus to pick us up. So these guys have faced more adversity than any other group I’ve had, and that has been the difference maker for us. We kept our composure when everything was going wrong and went back to what our game plan was. We had seniors at the end of the game who wanted it more, and that’s why we ended up in the final.”

Ocean City must now deal with a Shawnee (11-6) team that saw nine different players record at least one goal or an assist against Moorestown. But for the Raiders, Monday will be less about the Renegades and more about trying to take home a trophy for all the guys who came before and laid the foundation for the Red Raiders to become one of South Jersey’s premier programs.

“This means everything,” Patella said. “This is what we’ve been working for the last four years. We had heartbreak freshman year, heartbreak sophomore year, no season last year. We knew we wanted to be (in the title game) on Monday, and we have every opportunity to win that trophy. This means the world. I’m so excited, and we’re going to be prepared for Monday.”

“It started in 2013. This is my ninth year and we went from not winning more than four games to every year just slowly building the foundation to get to this point. My hat goes off to my seniors right now. At the end of the game they were the difference, in my opinion. But not to take anything away from these seniors, but every senior class we’ve had — 2019, 18, 17, 16, 15, 14, 13 — there are so many guys I could name who set the bar high for the next group and showed them what it was like, and learned the lessons from previous failures. I can’t thank those senior classes enough for what they’ve done to get us to this point,” LaTorre added. “When you get to this point and there are only 32 teams left in the state, you know it’s going to be a dogfight, regardless of numbers. Yes, we are the No. 1 seed, but we haven’t talked about that since the bracket came out. The only important number in our eyes right now is the number 3. You have to get three wins to hold the trophy, and right now we have two down with one to go. I know Monday is going to be a battle, but we’re going to bring everything we’ve got — and then some. We’ll play our best against their best.”

Said Rauner: “They were a great group of guys (the past few years) who we looked up to when we were younger, and even before that — the class of 2015, when my brother played, they were the first ones to win a CAL championship. In the beginning of the season we watched some film from the 2013 and 2014 seasons just to see how far we’ve come. Now we’re getting all these powerhouse teams on our schedule, and it feels great. We can’t wait to get to Monday. We’re trying to make history, write history and do something that no one (at Ocean City) has ever done. We want to show all these teams around here that Ocean City is here to play lacrosse. This ain’t no surf school. We’re here to play lacrosse and run it up with anyone.”

What’s next: No. 1 Ocean City hosts No. 2 Shawnee for the South Jersey Group 3 championship on Monday at 3 p.m. at Carey Stadium.

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