OAKHURST - During the early stages of his team's current 14-game unbeaten streak, first-year Ocean head coach John Terlecsky credited the return of Job Cajas from a club soccer commitment in his native Ecuador as a big reason why his team had picked up its play after a 3-2 start.

Despite his control of the midfield over the course of the season, Cajas had not scored a single goal heading into action Monday, but with Ocean needing a scorer to step up against Toms River South in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals on the Spartans' home turf, Cajas showed up right on time.

The senior midfielder scored his second goal of the game on a 45-yard free kick to break the tie in the 76th minute and the fifth-seeded Spartans rallied from a one-goal halftime deficit to top the No. 8 Indians, 3-2, and advance to the Shore Conference  Tournament final for the ninth time in program history.

Ocean senior Job Cajas. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

"He's been huge for us plugging up the middle of the field, because that was one of the positions we weren't sure about heading into the year," senior Steve Carton said of Cajas. "He's a very talented player. He can go forward, he can defend, so we definitely knew he would help us scoring at some point."

Ocean went into halftime down 2-1 after conceding a demoralizing goal with 42 seconds left in the half - the second of two goals by Toms River South senior Isaiah Dominguez within a span of four minutes.

With the wind at their backs in the second half, the Spartans took the field following the two defensive breakdowns with renewed vigor and in the ninth minute of the second half, they drew even.

"We got over it," Terlecsky said. "We had chances going against the wind in the first half, so going into the second half, we liked our chances."

Junior Luke Yates lifted a free kick toward the edge of the 18-yard box and junior Santieno Harding flicked a header toward the right side of the box. Senior Steve Carton touched the ball down, dribbled once to his right and unleashed a 10-yard strike to the upper near corner of the goal for the equalizer.

"Santieno headed the ball right to me and I had some space to my right," Carton said. "I saw the opening and took it."

Between the goals by Carton and Cajas, 27 minutes passed with the teams combining for only one shot, which belonged to Ocean. After a foul placed the ball on the 35 yard-line of the football field on the left side, Cajas lined up a free kick that he hoped would carry to the back right post.

Instead, the wind caught hold of it and blew it back toward the near post. Toms River South goalkeeper Jalen Folsom - who dominated balls in the air during the first half - overplayed the ball and it carried over his head for the go-ahead score with 4:14 left on the clock.

"Knowing there are only five minutes left and there is still overtime and (penalty kicks), I just wanted to hit it far post," Cajas said. "I got it up in the air and it just came back in the wind and, all thanks to God, it went in."

"I didn't even see it," Carton said. "I was fighting for position and when I turned around, the ball was going in the net."

Ocean's defense clamped down over the final four-plus minutes to secure the win despite missing its two center fullbacks due to head injuries. Senior Mark Butler sat out from the start due to a concussion his sustained in the 4-3 quarterfinal win over Monmouth Regional on Friday, according to Terlecsky, while junior Zach Sintic suffered a head injury in the first two minutes of the second half that sidelined him for the rest of the game.

With the two starters down, Yates shifted from center midfield to the center of the back line to help stabilize Ocean's defensive unit.

Ocean held Toms River South to one shot in the second half, which was a more defensive half despite the two Ocean goals. During the first half, Toms River South earned two early shots before the Spartans put up seven unanswered shots, which led to the game's first goal.

In the ninth minute, Carton shook free up the right flank and after carrying the ball to the right corner, he crossed it hard on the ground. The ball made it to the far left post, where Cajas made his run and finished from close range to earn his first goal of the season and the early 1-0 lead for his team.

"We have some injuries in the back, so I've been holding in the midfield," Cajas said. "I usually like to attack but I've played it based on what the team has needed. Today, I thought it was a good opportunity to get forward and take some risks.

"I have to give a lot of credit to my teammates. They've supported me all year, even when I came back and we lost those two games, they have been great teammates and stuck with me."

Toms River South mounted a charge over the final 10 minutes of the half, culminating in Dominguez's two goals. On the first one, senior Dustin Urbaczek threw the ball into the box and when it was cleared back out to him, Urbaczek sent it back toward the far right post. Dominguez elevated over a defender and struck a header back into the far left corner to even up the game at 1-1 in the 35th.

Dominguez also scored the go-ahead goal on a throw-in, this time in the final minute of the half. Urbaczek launched the ball toward the near right post and sophomore Ruben Gallo knocked it out to an open Dominguez, who one-timed a shot into the upper 90 from 10 yards out.

"Up until the last 10 minutes of the half, I thought we were by no means controlling the game, but I liked what we were doing and we certainly had some threats going against the wind," Terlecsky said. "I didn't like that the goal happened at the end because we prepared for their throw-ins and their free kicks and I think after giving that up, the guys got a little deflated."

Monday marked the first two-goal game of the season for Dominguez, who sat most of his senior season with a foot injury. His production helped offset the absence of sophomore Shane Kluxen, who suffered a head injury in Saturday's shootout win over Christian Brothers Academy. Kluxen hurt his head on the game-tying header and although Toms River South coach Ed Leibe said he was not diagnosed with a concussion, the sophomore forward was held out of Monday's game for precautionary reasons.

Toms River South was seeking its first trip to the Shore Conference Tournament final since 1992, but came up short for in the semifinals for the third time in the last eight seasons.

Ocean, meanwhile, is in the final for the third time in six years and will play No. 2 Holmdel in Thursday's championship game at Ocean High School in a rematch of the 2012 final. Ocean defeated Holmdel that season, 2-0, to capture its fourth SCT crown, which was the last year the Spartans won the SCT. They last reached the final in 2015 and lost to CBA, 2-0.

Ocean's ninth trip to the SCT final is the second-highest number of championship game appearances behind only CBA (11). This will be the first time Ocean will play in an SCT title game without longtime coach Tom Reilly, who retired from teaching last year and took the head women's job at Washington College. In his first year replacing his former head coach and mentor, Terlecsky has helped his team continue to thrive during the tournament season.

"Thank God for these players I have," Terlecsky said. "They make the staff look good. I'm fortunate to have a group of serious players who want to win and want to put the work in to win. Taking over this program, my goal from day one was to continue the legacy that coach Reilly created here and this tournament his a big part of that legacy."

 

Box Score

Ocean 3, Toms River South 2

1 2 F
Toms River South (11-5-2) 0 0 0
Ocean (16-2-1) 1 2 3

Goals (Assists): (TRS) Isaiah Dominguez (Dustin Urbaczek) 35', Isaiah Dominguez (Ruben Gallo) 40'; (O) Job Cajas (Steve Carton) 9', Steve Carton (Santieno Harding) 49', Job Cajas (DK) 76'
Shots: Ocean, 11-6
Saves: (TRS) Jalen Folsom 3; (O) Max Winters 3

 

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