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Offense Just In Time
Danny Aiello sized up his opportunity, and once he decided that he had a chance to put the 2024 NLF National Championship game against Eclipse Black on ice, the Team 91 Wolfpack midfielder wasn’t going to waste it.
“I was calling for the ball because earlier, I was able to take it and get past (the Eclipse defensive midfielder), so I was, like, ‘gimme it, I want the ball,” Aiello said. “I saw that I had it and was just thinking about taking that shot and I shot it.”
“That shot” was an incredible diving backhander while falling away from the cage. Give Aiello, a midfielder from Bayport-Blue Point (N.Y.) all the credit and all of the style points for it. It went in, putting the finishing touches on a 4-2 win in a defensive struggle throughout.
Aiello is well-aware of his role, that of a lockdown defensive midfielder and transition dynamo. Luckily for the Wolfpack, he stepped out of that a little bit with the goal and a beautiful skip pass earlier in the game to set up fellow BBP middie Maclin Keyser‘s goal to give the ‘Pack its first lead of the game. Aiello held up his end of the bargain on defense, as usual, but it was his offensive presence that helped Team 91 bring home the NLF title belt.
“It felt great. Defensive middies don’t really score a lot, so it felt great to have one,” Aiello said. “It doesn’t happen often, so when I get the chance, I try to take it. This tournament is one of the biggest ones for us and with us always playing against these great teams, it feels good to beat them.”
Defense Rules the Roost
Aiello was one of four goal scorers for 91, alongside Keyser, Liam Gregorek (Shoreham-Wading River, N.Y.) and Lucas LaForge (Mount Sinai, N.Y.). The Wolfpack, though, got it done with defense and goaltending. Brady Smith (Bayport-Blue Point, N.Y.), so young for his graduation year that he backstopped the Team 91 ’25 Shock to a World Series of Youth Lacrosse championship this summer, was brilliant in the first half. Smith tossed aside eight shots and was beat only once, with Eclipse star midfielder Hudson Hausmann (Brunswick, Conn.) doing the honors on a bouncer in traffic.
Smith kept his team in the game when the offense couldn’t get through a formidable Eclipse defense led by defenseman Luke Hublitz (Brunswick, Conn.) and goalie Carter Hagen (Darien, Conn.). He twice denied Matthew Jeffery (Cheshire, Conn.) – one of the best midfielders in the class – in 1v1 attempts in tight, then followed it up with a save with his head on a Ryan Colsey (Ridgefield, Conn.) – one of the best attackmen in the class – behind-the-back attempt. His best, though, came at the end of the first half, when he came across the crease and robbed Hayden Roeder (New Canaan, Conn.) on a surefire goal. That was the save that gave him an inkling that the Wolfpack could come back and finish the job.
“After I got that big cross off-stick save, I think that started to click for everyone. Everyone started to get all hype and they started clicking,” Smith said. “It feels really good. We haven’t won a tournament in, I think, two years, so this is big.”
Hausmann solved 91 second-half goalie Sal Caputo (Chaminade, N.Y.), who made four saves, on a mirror image of his first goal to bring Eclipse to within 3-2. That came on the heels of a Wolfpack goal barrage, including two back-to-back markers, to give the Long Island natives a 3-1 lead. Hagen did his part to keep Eclipse in it, coming up with six saves to burnish his reputation as one of the best ’24 goalies in the country.
Ultimately, though, Aiello and Smith’s heroics were too much to overcome.
2024 Championship Game Standouts
Carter Hagen, goalie, Darien (Conn.) / Eclipse
Hey, would you look at that? Another elite goalie from Darien. The Blue Wave has a case to be the country’s preeminent goalie factory, and Hagen is the latest in that pipeline. A thick righty who covers a lot of the net but moves well for a bigger goalie, Hagen tracked the ball really well throughout. He had a superb 1v1 save on Ben Morris (Bayport-Blue Point, N.Y.), bringing his stick across his body to make a high stop. Hagen moved his feet well, stopping a Keyser drive down the middle. He also had one save that stood out because a Michael Moon (St. Anthony’s, N.Y.) lefty blast literally got stuck in his mask, leaving no doubt as to whether Hagen made a clean stop.
Luke Hublitz, defense, Brunswick (Conn.) / Eclipse
Keeping in line with a theme of pipelines, let’s all stand here and be shocked that Brunswick has a big, nasty defenseman who can move. Hublitz looks to be the total package as a close defenseman who can cover well, throw timely and accurate checks and overpower attackmen with his physicality. He had a very impressive strip on a poke right on the gloves against Lucas LaForge (Mount Sinai, N.Y.) and did an excellent job against one of the country’s premier ’24 lefties. Hublitz packs a powerful frame and can engulf smaller opponents.
Lucas LaForge, attack, Mount Sinai (N.Y.) / Team 91 LI Wolfpack
LaForge wasted no time in making an impact for the Long Island Class C champion Mustangs, leading the team in goals with 48 and chipping in seven assists for 55 points, second-best on Mount Sinai behind NLF No. 1 ’22 Joey Spallina (Syracuse). That tally included nine hat tricks or better, and LaForge was the perfect lefty finisher to work off of Spallina. At the ’24 level, he’s a more balanced attackman. He had a gorgeous feed to the middle to set up Liam Gregorek’s goal to bring 91 even. It was his high-to-high finish in transition that capped the ‘Pack’s three-goal outburst that swung the game. LaForge knows how to get open and how to finish in traffic.
Dante Vardaro, defense, St. Anthony’s (N.Y.) / Team 91 LI Wolfpack
Wolfpack coach Jeff Aiello will tell anyone who’ll listen that he’s got the best defense in the country. It’s hard to dispute that after 91’s performance, one headlined by Vardaro’s play. He won his matchup with Ryan Colsey, keeping the dynamic lefty off the scoresheet, and you have to love what Vardaro brings to the table. St. Anthony’s has a good one on its hands – again, common theme – in a mean, nasty defenseman who covers a ton of ground. Vardaro knocked down a couple of passes, including a particularly impressive one on an EMO, and he struck on a check in traffic that caused a turnover. He might be the best ’24 defenseman in the country.
Team 91 Long Island Wolfpack
Danny Aiello (Bayport-Blue Point, N.Y.) 1 goal, 1 assist
Lucas LaForge (Mount Sinai, N.Y.) 1 goal, 1 assist
Maclin Keyser (Bayport-Blue Point, N.Y.) 1 goal
Liam Gregorek (Shoreham-Wading River, N.Y.) 1 goal
Ben Morris (Bayport-Blue Point, N.Y.) 1 assist
Michael Moon (St. Anthony’s, N.Y.) 4-for-9 faceoffs
Brady Smith (Bayport-Blue Point, N.Y.) 8 saves, 1 goal allowed
Sal Caputo (Chaminade, N.Y.) 4 saves, 1 goal allowed
Hudson Hausmann (Brunswick, Conn.) 2 goals
Luke Reed (New Canaan, Conn.) 5-for-7 faceoffs
Graham Burchill (Brunswick, Conn.) 0-for-2 faceoffs
Carter Hagen (Darien, Conn.) 7 saves, 4 goals allowed