Follow Matt Manley on Twitter

Click Here for a Photo Gallery by Cliff Lavelle

NEPTUNE - Manalapan head coach John Natoli so wanted to avoid a penalty kicks shootout in his team’s Shore Conference Tournament semifinal Thursday against defending tournament champion Ocean that he did not even take time out of practice to work on kicks.

Manalapan players mob Rocky Garretson (third from left) after the freshman scored the winning goal in overtime to beat Ocean on Thursday. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

“I’ve always seen it as a mental thing,” Natoli said. “If they practice it, then they’re more likely to play for penalty kicks because it’s exciting and it's a chance to be the hero. I’d rather them try to score and not think about the alternative. It’s always worked pretty well.”

For the fifth time this season Thursday night, the Braves’ relentlessness in overtime paid off.

Freshman Rocky Garretson scored 5:18 into the first overtime period off a corner kick by Ryan Hammer and top-seeded Manalapan knocked off No. 5 Ocean to advance to the SCT championship game for the first time since 2007. The Braves last won the title in 2006 and will look to do it again against Rumson-Fair Haven Saturday evening at Memorial Field.

“I never could have seen this happening at the beginning of the year,” said Garretson, whose father is Manalapan boys basketball and girls soccer coach Rick Garretson. “The guys on the team have made it really easy for me to fit in and I just try to do whatever the team needs me at the right time.”

The ball just barely cross the goal-line on the winning score and hit two Ocean defenders on the way to breaking the plane of the goal. Ocean goalkeeper Chris Seager came out to play Hammer’s corner kick, but could not possess the ball and Braves defender and senior captain Brian Dolan poked it past him to Garretson. The freshman volleyed a shot that deflected off Spartans sophomore Ryan Wells before sophomore Luis Araya, who was standing on the goal-line, headed it straight up off the crossbar. The ball came down over the line and Manalapan was awarded the goal to end the game.

[onescreen item="5157305"]“I got my foot on the ball and when it hit the crossbar, it looked like it was in, then it wasn’t in, then it was in, then it wasn’t in,” Garretson said. “Finally, I heard the ref blow his whistle and that was it.”

After upending Ocean – the Spartans second loss of the season the first loss by a one-goal margin since 2011 – Manalapan is now 5-0-1 in overtime games this season, including wins over three of the tournament’s top 10 seeds: No. 5 Ocean, No. 7 Jackson Memorial and No. 6 Christian Brothers Academy. The lone tie came against No. 8 Freehold Township.

“Overtime has been our time all year so we didn’t think about penalty kicks, we didn’t think about the last few minutes of regulation, we just focused on working hard,” Manalapan senior captain Brian Dolan said. “Any overtime could be our last and that’s how we approach playing in a do-or-die situation. We’re always going to come out fighting.”

Ocean nearly kept its title defense alive when sophomore forward and leading scorer Wadneson Alexis worked for a clean shot around the penalty area with only Braves keeper Ethan Siegel in his path. Alexis got a shot off, but his attempt glanced the left post and bounded away to keep the score tied in the 77th minute.

Alexis’ miss capped a strong second half for Ocean in which the Spartans outshot the Braves 7-2 and mostly controlled the final 20 minutes of regulation. Ocean finished with an 8-5 advantage in shots.

“We had our chance near the end of regulation and we missed it,” Ocean coach Tom Reilly said. “We had our leading goal scorer set up for a sitter at the penalty spot and he missed it a little bit to the left. What can you do? In a game like tonight, the opportunities were limited and we didn’t make ours when we got it.”

Although Ocean’s SCT championship run last year was mostly a dominant one that included just one win by a single goal, the Spartans thrived during an 18-1-2 season in one-goal games and that success carried over into this year. Prior to Thursday and excluded draws, Ocean was 15-0 in games decided by one goal, including a 4-0 mark this season.

“We were fortunate to be on the right end of a lot of games like this last year,” Reilly said. “Tonight, it went the other way. That’s the nature of this game.”

The Spartans are also no stranger to overtime. They had gone to extra time seven times prior to Thursday and were 2-0-5 in those games. Ocean beat Toms River South 2-1 in overtime in the round of 16 on Saturday and defeated Toms River North in penalty kicks on Tuesday after a 1-1 draw to advance to the semifinal.

Manalapan will take on a senior-laden Rumson side on Saturday evening while the Braves themselves sport a diverse lineup that starts four seniors, four juniors, two sophomores and a freshman.

“I like to think that soccer players are soccer players and it doesn’t matter what grade they’re in or what position you need them to play,” Natoli said. “When you ask a soccer player to play a certain role or perform a certain job, they can handle it and that’s the kind of team we have. They are hard-working kids who are very good soccer players.”

Despite a mostly young roster that returned after finishing 5-10-3 last year, this Manalapan team has played like a seasoned winner in close games against tough competition.

“The important thing the captains and the seniors have tried to stress to the juniors and sophomores is that this is their chance right now,” Dolan said. “We’re here right here and right now and that’s all that’s guaranteed. This might be the only chance they get to play in a championship game and they can’t take that for granted, and I don’t think we will take it for granted.”


Box Score

Manalapan 1, Ocean 0 (OT)





Ocean (11-2-5)





Manalapan (16-2-1)





Goals (Assists): (M) Garretson (Dolan) 86’
Shots: Ocean, 8-5
Saves: (O) Seager 1; (M) Siegel 4

[onescreen item="5157306"]

[onescreen item="5157308"]

[onescreen item="5157307"]

[onescreen item=" 5157309"]