HOLMDEL - Christian Brothers Academy head coach Tom Mulligan believes his team has struggled in every game this year, which has to be a result of the high expectations of a defending state championship program given that CBA has lost just twice all year.

Mulligan, however, means it as much as a compliment as he does a critique. The Colts haven't played like the machine they were last year, but no matter - they are right back where they want to be on the final day of the season.

Junior Dominic Bellomo and senior Kevin Brennan each scored second-half goals and senior keeper Shane Keenan and the CBA defense turned in their 16th shutout of the season as the Colts blanked Bishop Eustace, 2-0, Thursday at Holmdel High School to capture the South Jersey, Non-Public A championship.

Photo by Matt Manley

For the 16th time in program history Sunday, CBA will play for the Non-Public A championship and look to claim its seventh overall state championship by knocking off undefeated Delbarton - currently the No. 1 team among NJSIAA teams, according to NJ.com.

"We struggled in every game this year," Mulligan said. "Every single game this year was a battle of will and determination and tonight was just a culmination of all of those little battles, under the lights here for a trophy. It was a pleasure to watch the kids rise to the occasion."

According to Mulligan, CBA's struggles on Thursday stemmed from adjusting to the artificial surface at Holmdel, which the Colts have not seen much of this year. Bishop Eustace's pressure disrupted CBA's possession and the Colts countered those struggles by playing more direct than they are typically comfortable playing.

The result was a first half in which both teams were even nearly across the board: each took two shots, one shot on goal and earned two corner kicks. Thursday was the second time this week CBA went into halftime scoreless with its opponent only to find its scoring touch in the second half.

"Whenever you face a team you've never seen before, you have to take some time to see who their key players are and how they are trying to attack you - inside, outside, up the wings," Brennan said. "In the first half, we were a little shaky and we just pulled together at halftime, said, 'Let's just play our game, keep it on the floor and move it side-to-side.'"

In the second half, the Colts broke through thanks to a more poised attack that worked the outside of the formation to set up crosses and throw-ins. The first goal came in the seventh minute of the second half coming out of a throw-in on the right side.

Junior Jack Gill won the ball on the right side of the 18-yard box and flipped the ball toward the near post. It deflected off a defender and Bellomo approached the bouncing ball on the left post. He ran into an open shot and buried it for the game's first score.

"It was big because we started off slow," Bellomo said of his goal. "They pressured us a lot in the first half and that first goal really set the tone for the rest of the (second) half. We controlled the middle a lot more, got (the ball) wide and played most of our game. They are a good team and they did pressure us pretty good, but I think we handled it."

Bellomo's goal was his eighth this season, which leads a balanced CBA scoring attack that has posted 52 goals in 23 matches. By contrast, Bishop Eustace boasts three players with more goals than Bellomo, who leads the team while playing most of his junior season at holding center midfielder.

"The kid's a beast," Mulligan said of Bellomo. "That kid is as good as a lot of kids in the state and he's just growing on me every day. I've got him for next year too and I can't wait."

Keenan did his part by thwarting a pair of Crusaders threats, both by beating the Bishops Eustace front line to the ball in the air and then with a save on a header in which he was screened by an opposing player.

"I'm very comfortable on the ground, reacting," Keenan said. "I'm more comfortable going up for the crosses, but I know if I can't get there, I have to drop back to my line, get my angles and be ready to react."

After dodging that threat, CBA came back with insurance thanks to Brennan. The senior outside midfielder saw an opening from 22 yards out on the left side and struck a shot that bent into the far corner of the goal. Brennan hit a nearly-identical shot in the first half that did not quite bend enough and sailed just wide of the far post, but the senior made the proper adjustment when he got his second chance.

"I noticed pretty early that this turf is thinner than what we're used to and because of that, the ball really takes off when you hit it low," Brennan said. "The first one, I hit it pretty good and it just missed, so I tried to keep that in the back of my mind in case I got another opportunity. Fortunately, I got another one and I just tried to keep it low again and get it inside the far post."

For the 16th time this year, the Colts finished off a clean sheet to add to their school record total, which Keenan and the rest of his defense set last round in a 2-0 win over St. Joseph of Metuchen. The previous record was 14, held by both the 2011 and 2016 teams.

"We have a lot of trust in our back line," Bellomo said. "They're the backbone of our team, especially Shane and (John) Askin leading everyone. It's nice to have them."

"Soccer is a team game and soccer is a defensive game," Mulligan said. "A lot of glory goes to those guys who score the goals, and rightfully so. It's a difficult task to score a lot of goals, but not enough glory goes to the guys who defend the goal and this team as defended the goal all year long. You can win both ways."

CBA entered the season with only one returning starter from last year's 24-win state championship team, but began the 2017 campaign a hot team whose only loss over its first 13 games was a last-minute loss to St. Benedict's, currently the No. 1 team in the country according to USA Today.

"We had to learn how each other plays, which I think we were able to do pretty quickly," said Keenan, who played academy soccer instead of high school soccer prior to this season. "I think we just came together as a group really quickly. We bonded really well, we hung out off the field and developed a lot of trust in each other. I think that made the transition easy for a lot of guys."

The Colts actually hit their rough patch later in the year, when they fell to Freehold Township, 3-1, at home and lost a shootout to Toms River South after a 1-1 draw in the Shore Conference Tournament. All three of CBA's non-wins came on its home field.

Despite those struggles, CBA reached the 20-win mark for the second straight year and finds itself one win away from a second straight Non-Public A championship. In order to get it, however, the Colts will have to overcome a 22-0-1 Delbarton team that overwhelmed the No. 2 team in the state, Seton Hall Prep, by a 4-0 margin on Thursday night.

The championship game will feature the last two Non-Public A champions, with Delbarton winning four straight from 2012 to 2015. Delbarton beat CBA in the 2015 final and the last team to beat Delbarton in the Non-Public A final was CBA back in 2011, when the Colts went 20-0-1.

"Everyone that was on the team last year and sat the bench felt what that feeling was like and knows what a thrill it is to win that game," Brennan said. "When it came tournament time this year, we wanted that feeling again. The more you win, the more fun it gets."

 

Box Score

CBA 2, Bishop Eustace 0

1 2 F
Bishop Eustace (16-4-2) 0 0 0
CBA (20-2-1) 0 2 2

Goals (Assists): (CBA) Dominic Bellomo (Jack Gill) 47', Kevin Brennan 66'
Shots: Tied, 7-7
Saves: (BE) Zach Young 2; (CBA) Shane Keenan 4