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MANALAPAN – The returning Manalapan boys soccer players from last year’s Shore Conference Tournament championship team know what it’s like to hoist a trophy after winning a tournament, but that elation gave way to the bitter taste of the end a little more than a week later.

Thursday against Monroe in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final, the Braves regained that winning feeling.

Senior Adam Weisberger hammered a shot in from close range in the fourth minute and the No. 2 seed Braves held that one-goal lead for 76 more minutes to beat the No. 4 Falcons and win the Central Jersey Group IV title for the first time since 2007. Manalapan will now play South Jersey power and defending Group IV champion Washington Township (23-1) in the Group IV semifinals on Tuesday at Summerfield School in Neptune.

“It’s really special because this is really difficult to do,” said Manalapan coach John Natoli, who led Manalapan to back-to-back sectional titles in 2006 and 2007. “There are so many good teams in great programs in this bracket and even in a great year, like we had last year, you need to get a little bit lucky to win the whole thing. I’m just really happy for the kids because they’ve showed a lot of resolve bouncing back and learning from tough situations and this is a testament to their character.”

Manalapan senior Ryan Hammer hoists the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV title after the Braves' 1-0 win over Monroe in the sectional finals on Tuesday. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Manalapan failed to defend its SCT championship, losing to Freehold Township in the tournament semifinals two weeks ago Thursday. The Braves quickly turned their attention to finishing off a Central Jersey Group IV title run, which fell two wins short last year with a 2-1 semifinal loss to Hunterdon Central.

“I think this is even better than last year just because we’re ending the year with a championship,” senior Rob Pratka said. “Last year, we won a championship and a week later, we lost and the season was over. Winning this is a great accomplishment, a great feeling."

After getting off to a fast start and beating Hunterdon Central, 3-2, in overtime on Monday, the Braves again stormed out to a fast start. Junior Mitchel Volis served a corner kick to the far right post and sophomore Rocky Garretson volleyed the ball back to the center of the goal mouth with a header. With the ball hanging in the air, Weisberger popped a one-timed shot from inside the six to open the scoring 3:57 into the match.

Just 1:30 earlier, the Braves hit the crossbar and only a minute after the goal, Monroe missed a clean look on a service to the back right post.

“It definitely seemed like it was going to be a higher-scoring game,” Weisberger said. “We’ve been getting off to good starts and scoring goals all tournament long, but today, we leaned on the defense to hold them down.”

Senior goalkeeper Justin Terr made two saves as part of Manalapan's goalkeeper platoon and saved a near-post strike with 35 seconds left to help the Braves thwart Monroe's last push. Garretson also cleared the ball off the goal-line and Mike McNicholas sent the ball forward toward midfield as the final 10 seconds ran off the clock.

“It felt like forever,” Terr said of the final minute. “So much happened in that last minute, and it still felt like the clock was standing still. I made the save with like 40 seconds and then things got really crazy. Rock backed me up and saved the ball off the line and next thing I know, we clear the ball out and the clock is running out.”

Terr gave Monroe a chance to take the lead when he picked the ball up and put it back down in the 75th minute, giving Monroe a rare free kick inside the box. The shot sailed over the crossbar to end the threat.

“I thought I blew it for us,” Terr said. “I didn’t think I really had the ball yet, but I should have just picked it up. One thing about this team is we pick each other up, and I knew the guys had my back like they have faith in me to make a save when we need it.”

Senior Mike Cavanaugh also saved two shots in the first half during his time in goal. The two senior goalkeepers have split every game this season after entering camp as projected back-ups to junior Matt Rosenberg, who elected to play academy soccer this season. Instead the senior tandem combined to turn goalkeeper into a strength for the Braves again this season, according to Natoli.

“From day one, both guys have come in and done a really great job,” Natoli said. “They accepted their role, they accepted the challenge, and they really embraced what we were doing. If either guy slipped up, we would have played the other one, but it never happened. Both guys were solid every single game, and we never felt like we were giving up anything by playing either one.”

“I know some guys wouldn’t like playing only half the game, but I loved splitting games with Mike,” Terr said. “We have been splitting games all four years, from jayvee on up, so we didn’t want to have it any other way.”

The Braves struck seven shots on goal, forcing Monroe goalkeeper Bryce Horn to make six saves. Horn made diving saves on shots by Pratka and Weisberger in the second half and an earlier lunging save on a shot by Pratka.

Pratka worked for four quality chances on goal for Manalapan, although he did not finish a goal. He hit the crossbar with a header in the second minute, had a shot smothered by Horn in the 12th and popped a close-range shot over the crossbar in the 23rd. He later placed a direct kick on net that Horn saved late in the second half.

The defending Shore Conference Tournament champions and preseason No. 1 team in the Shore Conference have rarely – if ever – played the underdog role since the middle of last season but will look to embrace it against Washington on Tuesday. The Minutemen have won 20 straight games since a September loss to Eastern and survived a challenge from Toms River North, 1-0, in the South Jersey Group IV final.

“We want to play the best,” Pratka said. “They are the champs, they have the Division I talent, and they will probably be the best team we play this year, but we welcome the challenge. We say bring them on.”



Box Score

Manalapan 1, Monroe 0




Monroe (21-4-1)




Manalapan (16-3-3)




Goals (Assists): (MAN) Wesiberger (Garretson) 4’
Shots: Manalapan, 9-7
Saves: (MON) Horn 6; (MAN) Cavanaugh 2, Terr 2