Garden City’s defense was to be one of the Trojans’ strengths this season, if not their biggest strength, along with a deep midfield. The defensive unit showed why in a 6-5 win over Smithtown West on a chilly Saturday night under the lights at Smithtown’s home turf field.
Holding Smithtown West’s high-scoring offense, led by attackman James Pannell and Kyle Keenan and a host of athletic midfielders, to five goals -- one in the second half -- was no simple task. The Bulls scored 15 goals against Farmingdale in their previous game Wednesday and opened the season with an 11-3 win over Whitman.
Garden City standout defenders Stephen Jahelka and Brian Fischer, juniors who are both headed to Harvard, led the effort. Nearly everywhere Pannell went on the field, Jahelka tracked him. Almost wherever Keenan went, Fischer was on him. The pairs were basically tied to each other like shoelaces. That was the plan for Garden City. And they didn’t let Smithtown West’s scorers get free too often. Pannell, a sophomore, and Keenan, a junior, had one goal each.
“I’m a lefty,” Jahelka said, “so it worked well against Pannell, a righty. Fischer is a righty and Keenan is a lefty,” he said, describing how the defense divvied up the assignments. “I’m also better behind [the net] than I am at midfield so when Pannell went out there we put Fischer on him. But our whole defense played awesome today.”
“Our defense picked it up,” said Johns Hopkins-bound junior midfielder Tom Gordon, who scored the winning goal with 23 seconds left. “Jahelka, Fischer, [JP] Burnside, Billy Sweeney, they all did great.”
Gordon also mentioned sophomore goalie Dan Marino, who made his first varsity start and had seven saves. Senior goalie Alex Castronovo got the start in net in the season-opening 10-5 win over Syosset and played well, coach Steve Finnell said, but he wanted to give both goalies a chance to prove themselves in the early season.
After allowing a Keenan goal just over a minute into the game, and going down 4-1 just before halftime on the second goal from Smithtown West midfielder Brett Madarasz, Jahelka said, “we came together as a team,” in the second half.
“It was a slide here and missed pass there that kind of kept us on defense the majority of the game,” he said. “After each goal, we looked at each other like, ‘C’mon guys, this shouldn’t happen.’”
Aside from Pannell’s goal that tied the score at 5 with 4:23 remaining, mistakes were minor in the second half and set the stage for the comeback win.
“They did a great job and it’s not an easy matchup,” Finnell said of his defense. “They covered them last year, but we knew Smithtown had gotten better.”
It was a high-level game from both sides as was expected. Garden City entered ranked No. 3 in the country by Inside Lacrosse. Smithtown West was No. 13 with both having a chance to make a big-game statement after formerly top-ranked West Islip lost its season opener, 13-12, to Sachem North in overtime on Wednesday.
“They switched out of the conference, but that would have been a heck of Long Island championship,” Jahelka said, referencing Smithtown West’s move into Class A from Class B, which Garden City plays in. “They’re a great team with a lot of offensive and defensive firepower. They played a great game. To beat a good team like that gives you a lot of confidence.”