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As introductions to high school lacrosse go, Dante Vardaro headed straight into the deep end of the pool Sunday. 

The St. Anthony’s defenseman’s talent is clear, as his commitment to the University of Pennsylvania indicates. But the Team 91 Long Island 2024 standout had yet to play a high school game. His junior season was wiped out by a knee injury suffered during the football season in the fall of 2022, making Sunday’s season-opener against Culver Academy a much-delayed debut. 

Vardaro was exemplary as one of several new faces in the Friars’ defense, which used a hat trick from Long Island Express 2024 Kyle Bilello and a stellar performance from goalie Sean Forde to hand Culver its first loss on its eastern trip, 9-8, at Rutgers University.  


Long Time Coming

Vardaro has waited a long time for Sunday. 

“It was fun to watch because of (Team 91 and now North Carolina standout) Owen (Duffy), all those kids, it was really good to watch,” he said. “It kind of stunk being on the sidelines, but I got to learn a lot about the way this team operates, the way we conduct ourselves after wins, after losses and all the things in between. Being able to step on the field for the first time, I had a little bit of experience from watching, so I kind of knew how I should hold myself and how I needed to play.”

Vardaro didn’t look like a debutant. He drew a daunting matchup in Culver’s Luke Macaluso. He kept Macaluso off the board until a fourth-quarter man-up score. Vardaro was a constant presence in passing lanes and caused mistakes to dent Culver’s momentum. 

Vardaro’s personal matchup took a lot of work to dial in this week. 

“He’s an amazing attackman, very shifty and very smart,” he said of Macaluso, bound for North Carolina. “During practice, I watched a lot of film and kind of knew where he was going to be, drew up Xs and Os for the way he kind of operates. But at the end of the day, he’s such a great player it just came down to grit and it came down to playing the way I had to play for us to beat them.”

While Vardaro’s injury makes his journey unique, he wasn’t alone in the debut category. The Friars are breaking in essentially a new defense around the rock that is Virginia commit Tommy Snyder (LI Express). Tyler Shanahan (Sacred Heart) and Michael Kelton (LI Express / Army) turned in shifts at close D, and the uber-talented LSM duo of junior Parker McDonald (Team 91 LI / North Carolina) and sophomore Ethan Bramoff (LI Express) made plays up and down the field, both scoring goals 

Building that defense has been a labor, but the early return was impressive. 

“Practice in the beginning was important, not just for plays and drawing up Xs and Os but for developing chemistry as friends,” Vardaro said. “I think that was a big thing in this game, being able to talk through the hard moments, and that got us through.”

A little help from his friend 

After an even first half, St. Anthony’s opened up a 9-4 lead in the third quarter, thanks in part to keeping Culver (5-1) off the board for more than 14 minutes. The defense only settled in thanks to the room created by a sensational performance from Forde, who stopped 13 shots. 

Even that seems an undercount since he had 10 in the first half, the Utah signee nearly unbeatable high and with an absolute bead on shots from Culver’s midfield. 

“That was crucial, especially with us having a young team,” Vardaro said. “The heart of every defense is its goalie, and having him in net is a huge help. He bailed us out a couple of times when we really needed it.”

Opportunistic was the word that best described St. Anthony’s offense for its danger in transition. It won the 6-on-6 game defensively, repelling Culver’s massively talented midfield. And given the 6-on-6 ability of Culver’s defense, the Friars sought to avoid direct confrontation whenever they could. 

That suited Bilello just find. The dynamic middie bound for Brown was all over the field, exploiting openings Culver provided. 

“I think we’re very athletic people and if there’s transition, we’re going to push it,” Bilello said. “And if it’s not there, we’re going to move it out. I think today it was there, and we kept going.”

“They’re a great team,” Culver midfielder Mason Szewczyk, another Carolina signee, said. “Before this trip, we don’t really get an opportunity to play anyone super athletic and talented like them. They’re a very well-coached team and they made us pay for our mistakes that some other teams can’t take advantage.” 

St. Anthony’s LSMs had a hand in three first-half goals. McDonald scored in transition off a Forde stop in the first quarter. Twenty seconds later, Bramoff scooped the faceoff GB, rounded the cage and fed a wide open Bilello to step down into a rocket. Then after a Bilello coast-to-coast goal off a Vardaro turnover, Bramoff dunked home a GB. A man-up catch-and-shoot from senior Army signee Quinn Langton (LI Express) gave St. Anthony’s a 5-4 lead at halftime. 

Lehigh signee Luke Breslin (Team 91 LI) ripped a behind-the-back shot to start the third-quarter scoring off a Bilello feed, off a Bramoff CTO. Bilello’s favorite goal of the day came when he emerged from a six-man scrum behind the cage to connect through Langton to ’25 five-star Gary Merrill (Team 91 LI / North Carolina) for the midfielder to fire home a howitzer. And Jake Riglietti (LI Express / Iona) added a goal in transition off a loose ball at midfield that he bombed to the hole. 

Weathering the Eagles’ run

The message in the St. Anthony’s huddle, when Bilello made it 9-4 with 2:24 left in the third, was that a ton of time remained. Sure enough, the Eagles would use it to make the game interesting. 

Szewczyk, who scored three times, tallied with 56 seconds left in the third to trim the deficit. Junior Dartmouth commit and West Coast Starz standout Spencer Reagan (7-for-10) tipped the faceoff battle after Michael Moon (Team 91 LI / Brown) (9-for-17) held the edge early. 

St. Anthony’s killed a penalty thanks to Forde’s 11th save early in the fourth before Macaluso scored on a leaping dunk on the crease. That goal was set up by Princeton commit Aidan McDonald, who fed his third assist to Ohio State commit Christian Hogan 54 seconds later. Yale commit Sean Grogan scored twice for the Eagles, and Szewczyk added his third of the game with 6:56, beating Forde five-hole on an alley dodge. 

But St. Anthony’s came up with the key plays when needed most. And with a rare chance at being the underdog, they made the most of the feeling. 

“Taking this game was a big step for us because we’re very inexperienced,” Bilello said. “All those guys (on Culver) are obviously amazing, and I think we’re such an underdog. We had it in our minds and just playing as a team together and being with the guys was tremendous, and it meant so much to us. It’s just the bond we’ve built that together we cared more about winning than individuals.” 

St. Anthony’s vs. Culver Standouts 

Sean Forde ’24, goalie St. Anthony’s (N.Y.) / Utah

Over to you, Kyle Bilello.

“Sean Forde is the most underrated player in the country,” Bilello stated. “There’s not many goalies I’d pick over him. He bailed me out a couple of times, and he certainly has stepped up big. A massive player for us.”

Forde had 10 saves in the first half, and his rebound control was impeccable. He seems to raise his game against the best opponents. 

Kyle Bilello ’24, midfield, St. Anthony’s (N.Y.) / Long Island Express – Brown

Against a vaunted Culver midfield, Bilello looked like the most dynamic two-way middie on the field. His toughness and work ethic is prototypical St. Anthony’s. He asserted himself in every phase of the game. Bilello is just tireless, which makes him impossible to cover when he has that engine and that set of skills. 

Ethan Bramoff ’26, LSM, St. Anthony’s (N.Y.) / Long Island Express

Bramoff had a goal and an assist. He was spectacular, and the more a defense with four new parts works together, the better they’ll get. All of it is predicated on Forde between the pipes and the stabilizing precense of Tommy Snyder that allows Bramoff to use his instincts and headiness to make plays. 

Parker McDonald ’25, LSM, St. Anthony’s (N.Y.) / Team 91 Long Island – North Carolina

McDonald is just a platonic ideal of an LSM – in his defensive bona fides, in his stick skills, in his athleticism. The notion of either him or Bramoff being able to trade off the role and constantly be fresh to get after you for a full 48 minutes should terrify opponents. 

Mason Szewczyk ’24, midfield, Culver (Ind.) – North Carolina

Among Culver’s talented midfield, Szewczyk stood out. He’s a nightmare off the dodge, with a hard shot and the soft hands to work both off-ball in the catch-and-shoot and to pass at speed to get teammates involved. A heady and tenacious player, he’s what you think of when you think of a Culver midfielder. Currently ranked in the 30s in the NLF rankings, he’s almost a virtual lock to end up significantly higher than that in the final ones. 

Kyle Eggebraten ’24, defense, Culver (Ind.) – Maryland

When you look back at the tape and see that St. Anthony’s had limited 6-on-6 success, it points to close defenders shutting things down. Eggebraten and Duke signee Nikolas Menendez are both outstanding in the way they quietly execute their principles. It’s not flashy by design since they make sure that nothing happens. Both are physical, quick and smothering. 

Sean Grogan ’25, attack, Culver (Ind.) – Yale

Culver’s offense was a little slow to get going. McDonald didn’t assert himself until the fourth, and the space created by the midfielders off the dodge was negated by St. Anthony’s defense. But Grogan is a wild card in this attack in that he does a bit of everything. He can feed and facilitate, or he can finish, with a knack for the spectacular.