NEPTUNE – If Derek MacKinnon could have seen the reaction of the Manalapan boys soccer players after his golden goal Wednesday night rolled up against the inside side netting, the looks of dejection and drained body language would have appeared all too familiar.

After two years of falling short in the NJSIAA Group IV Tournament, though, MacKinnon and his Washington Township teammates were done looking back at the heartbreak. It was time to celebrate.

Ryan Hammer (9) and Rob Pratka (6) linger at midfield following an overtime defeat at the hands of Washington Township on Wednesday night. (Photo by Matt Manley)

As the Manalapan players watched a banner season fade into the cold night at Memorial Athletic Complex, Washington Township’s entire roster piled onto MacKinnon to celebrate his game-winning goal 36 seconds into the second overtime period, the knockout punch in a 2-1 overtime win over the Braves that catapulted the Minutemen – the No. 4 team in the nation according to the latest Top Drawer Soccer Top 50 – into their first Group IV title game in history.

Washington Township (25-1), now winners of 22 straight, will play Scotch Plains-Fanwood on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at Kean University for the Group IV championship.

“I know what it’s like to lose on this field, in this game and to have our hearts broken, and I refused to feel that again,” MacKinnon said. “We refused to feel that again. After losing here two years ago and losing in the sectional final last year, we were not going to let it happen again.”

MacKinnon – a four-year starter, a St. Joseph’s University recruit and a selection for the High School All-American Game in Raleigh, N.C., next month – was front and center for the disappointment of the last two seasons. The Minutemen suffered a stunning loss in the South Jersey Group IV final to Clearview last season and a loss to Monroe in the Group IV semifinals at Neptune in 2012. The loss to Clearview was the only defeat Washington suffered during its 25-1 season last year.

A Group championship has seemed an inevitability for the Minutemen from the start of the season, even after they lost their fourth game of the season to Eastern. With six players committed to Division I soccer programs and an All-American leading the way, the only thing that might possibly have stopped Washington Township from finally reaching the season’s final game was any baggage from the past two years.

Just when it seemed most inevitable that Washington Township was on its way to clearing its greatest hurdle in program history, Manalapan opened up some old wounds and put the Washington Township destiny in doubt. In the 75th minute of play, after fending off several Minutemen chances that could have put the game out of reach, the Braves drew even on the scoreboard when senior defender Jordan Vance laid a shot into the right side of the goal following a free kick by senior Ryan Hammer from the left side of the field.

A Minutemen defender headed Hammer’s kick away from the goal, but it ended up at the foot of Vance, who finessed a shot that appeared to fool goalkeeper Travis Yates and dropped into the side of the frame to tie the game and stun a Washington side that was only five minutes from history.

“It felt like we started to gain some momentum there in the second half,” Manalapan coach John Natoli said. “I had some things to say to our guys at halftime, and I felt like they responded well. We had them on their heels during the end of regulation and then when overtime came, it was like they got their second wind and they took control again.”

If the equalizer was not frustrating enough, the force field around the Manalapan goal enforced by goalkeeper Justin Terr and the Braves defense began to faze the Washington players. Terr – who also saved a shot by senior Burak Ozdemir in the 52nd minute – denied MacKinnon in the 77th minute on a shot from the six-yard marker, parrying the ball over the soccer crossbar and off the bottom of the football crossbar that hovered above the goal.

“I thought for sure I had a goal there, but he made a great save,” MacKinnon said of Terr, the second goalkeeper in Manalapan’s two-keeper platoon on Wednesday after starter Mike Cavanaugh. “Their goalie made a couple great saves when we thought we were about to put the game out of reach.”

“He came out his freshman year and couldn’t even catch the ball,” Natoli said of Terr. “Tonight he was playing in a state semifinal and making great saves. Just a great work ethic and a great kid. The two goalies, I can’t say enough about them. They’ve been awesome.”

Washington dominated the first overtime period but could not break through. With Manalapan 10 minutes from earning an official draw with a top 10 team in the nation and a chance to beat them in a shootout, the Minutemen got one last message from their coach as they all lined up on the 18-yard line and looked toward the scoreboard on the north end of the field.

“Coach (Shane) Snyder point up at the scoreboard and said, ‘That scoreboard is either going to say 2-to-1 in favor of the home team, or it’s going to say 2-to-1 in favor of the visitors,'' MacKinnon said. "Decide which side you want to be on.’ We’ve been on the wrong side of that scoreboard and that was a reminder that if we wanted to change that, we had to go take it.”

After Manalapan kicked off to begin the second overtime session, the Minutemen went back to work applying pressure in the direction of the Manalapan goal. MacKinnon elevated and headed a long ball toward the top of the 18-yard box over to the left side of the box and timed a run to the goal. Dan Marino one-touched the ball out of the air and played MacKinnon through the Manalapan back line and into a one-on-one chance against Terr. After Terr left his line, MacKinnon poked the ball into the right side netting with the outside of his right foot.

MacKinnon also scored Washington’s first goal of the game, a one-timed shot out of the air on a pass from Lou Vitolli in the ninth minute, capping a seven-minute stretch during which the Minutemen held the ball and worked for the game’s first scoring chance.

Wednesday’s defeat ended Manalapan’s longest state tournament run since 2007, when the Braves won a share of the Group IV championship by tying Clifton, 1-1, in the title game. Those Braves beat Washington Township in the Group semifinals to reach that championship game, and while this year’s team failed to live up to the 2007 squad in that regard, the challenge in front of this team was far more daunting.

“I like to think this group is a lot like the team in ’06 and ’07: Similar talent, similar skill, we had the goal scorer up top, we played the same formation,” Natoli said. “Unfortunately, we ran into a very good team tonight.”

While Manalapan came up short, it came from behind and took a nationally-ranked team into overtime one round after winning a Central Jersey Group IV championship for the first time in seven years. During their last two seasons, the outgoing group of seniors – which include Hammer, Vance, center midfielder Adam Weisberger, forward Rob Pratka, Terr, Cavanaugh, and defender Eric Wilkinson – won a Shore Conference Tournament championship in 2013 and went out this year with Wednesday’s showing.

“This was a great group of seniors,” Natoli said. “They came to practice every day, worked hard and led by example. They came in four years ago with a goal in mind and although they fell short of the ultimate goal, they still accomplished a lot of things.”

The Braves were not the better team on the field Wednesday, but they brought the best out of a program that had been searching for its seminal moment for a long time.

“Manalapan is incredibly tough,” MacKinnon said. “They play hard, you can tell they play for each other, just like we do. They are a class team and they proved why they made it this far, but in the end, I really feel like we deserved to win this game, and we finally went out and earned it.”

 

Box Score

Washington Twp. 2, Manalapan 1 (OT)

1

2

OT

OT

F

Washington (24-1)

1

0

0

1

2

Manalapan (16-4-3)

0

1

0

0

1

Goals (Assists): (W) MacKinnon (Vilotti) 9’, MacKinnon (Marino) 91’; (M) Vance 75’
Shots: Washington Twp., 14-6
Saves: (W) Yates 2; (M) Cavanaugh 0, Terr 6