30 in 30: Is Kean Ready to Catch Montclair State?
|"I'm trying to stay humble with
what I've achieved. I just want to continue improving myself," said
Rich Cheifitz, the most decorated player to ever suit up for Kean.
"The main focus is to win the conference championship no matter who
it is against."
© Larry Levanti
In the greater landscape of Division III lacrosse, the clashes between Kean University and Montclair State don't resonate much. To be honest, there aren't a whole lot of contests in the predominantly New Jersey-based Skyline Conference that pique the collective interest. That doesn't mean it's not important to those involved.
For Shelley Sheiner, Kean's head coach, the annual – and often semi-annual – match-up between the Cougars and Redhawks is the epitome of a rivalry game.
"If both teams were 0-15 and the last game of the year was between Kean and Montclair, the winner would consider it a successful season," Sheiner said. "It's a dynamite rivalry. They have a lot of great players up at Montclair. Good kids. Kids I recruit. Kids are at Kean that [Montclair] recruited. Back in the '80s and '90s, the rivalry was coined as the New Jersey War."
Sheiner appreciation for the Garden State throwdown has grown steadily over the years. It started during his playing days when he suited up for Kean (pronounced: CANE) and has continued during his coaching tenure with the Cougars, which will be entering its 11th year in the spring of '14.
"It's a great game; a fun game. It's hotly contested," he said. "You've got kids who have played high school or club ball together. It's as close to a civil war game as it gets. Both program's have quality people and quality kids."
What there hasn't been in this rivalry lately is a Kean win. The last victory came in 2008, when Sheiner's crew upset Montclair in the Skyline championship game to earn a ticket to the tournament. Since then, the Redhawks have rattled off nine-straight victories, although Kean has been in many of the contests.
Three of the nine games were decided by a lone goal while for others were by four goals or less. Last year's 16-7 Montclair win in the conference title game was the most lopsided victory since the '08 regular season. It was a disappointing finish to a 15-3 season that set the school record for victories, but one that has kept the motivation alive to conquer their rivals.
"We fall short each time we play them and it's always a tough game, and also emotional," said senior Rich Cheifitz, who was a third team All-American last spring on attack. "We always try to come at them as hard as we can. We simply need to adjust things and figure out what we can do to finish better."
Part of the solution is Cheifitz, who notched an 85-point (50g, 35a) season in 2013. The most decorated player in Kean history and probably the best player to ever come through the program, according to Sheiner, Cheifitz accounted for only three goals and two assists in the two games against Montclair last year and will be counted on to up that production.
Cheifitz, who is also a member of the Israeli national team, takes an understated approach to his key role in Kean's quest to unseat the Redhawks.
"I'm trying to stay humble with what I've achieved. I just want to continue improving myself," Cheifitz said. "The main focus is to win the conference championship no matter who it is against."
Playing in the shadow of its heated rival for the past five years has not been a pleasant experience for the Cougars, but it's somewhat surprising they've been able to sustain their spot in the Skyline second chair considering that Sheiner coaches Kean on a part-time basis.
A special education teacher at Bergenfield Middle School, Sheiner has a solid hour commute down the Garden State Parkway every afternoon to get to practice. While he hopes that there might be a change in his title at some point, the part-time thing rarely bothers him.
"A lot of it is because I am a graduate of Kean," he said. "I believe everything good in my life has come from the university. I'm blindly loyal to that school. I love it. It's my home. If you ask my guys, it's their home, too. It's a special place. To say it's a labor of love, that's an understatement. It just works for me."
The players sense Sheiner's pride in his job and gravitate toward's his unwavering belief in the exceptionalism of the school.
"Even though he is not around during the day, we'll always still be able to contact him," Cheifitz said. "He helps us out with anything we need help with. Even though he technically isn't there, he is there and he cares about us. He'll be there at 3 or 4 p.m. and he'll stay there until midnight if he needs to."
If Cheifitz, along with Maryland transfers Zach Williams on defense and John Marcelli in the midfield, can stay healthy, the Cougars should once again be able to fend off the likes of Richard Stockton and Farmingdale to retain the second spot in the Skyline pecking order.
Is Kean ready to grab the top spot and unseat Montclair as the conference's NCAA tournament representative? Time will tell, but all the players know the date.
"Do my guys circle it on their calendar? Yes," Shelley said. "Do they circle it on their calendar? I would assume so. And I'm optimistic about our team. I'm not going to say we're going to win because we haven't done it in five seasons, but we have a great group of kids and we'll be competitive."
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