FLEMINGTON - For three straight games, the Marlboro boys soccer team had found ways to win a hard-fought NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV tournament game through sheer will, determination and some favorable bounces of the ball.

Thursday night, against one of the state's most airtight defenses, the ball bounced the other way.

Top-seeded Hunterdon Central pulled out a 7-6 victory over No. 3 Marlboro in penalty kicks after 100 scoreless minutes to win the Central Jersey Group IV title while denying the visiting Mustangs their first ever NJSIAA sectional championship.

"I wasn't planning a postgame speech for a loss, only for if we had won," Marlboro coach Dave Santos said. "A lot of what I was going to say if we won is still relevant now that we lost and that is that I'm proud of them, they put in a strong effort and I tell them all the time, don't let your goals be the end-all. A lot of times, it's about the journey, and this was a fabulous journey. We accomplished a lot, we bonded like no team I've ever coached and we don't have a title, but it's still a successful season in my eyes."

During the round of penalty kicks, Marlboro keeper James Weinberg deflected the sixth Hunterdon Central attempt, but the shot by Martin Menendez directed his shot with enough pace to tuck it into the side netting to extend the sudden death round of kicks to a seventh overall shot for both teams. Weinberg also got a fingertip on the previous Red Devils shot by Jacob Grant to the same spot on the goal.

"I feel for James, because he's a terrific keeper and he did everything he could to get a finger on those two shots and he almost had them," Santos said. "Those weren't easy shots to save and he almost came up with both of them. It's a tough situation with the pressure building and neither team is blinking. At some point, somebody has to blink and, really, it was more their keeper coming up with a save than us missing."

Hunterdon Central keeper Dan Mecadon then saved a shot by Marlboro senior Steven Karp that was headed for the left side of the goal - the only shot that either team did not convert in seven rounds of kicks. Aidan Cook then followed with the clinching kick, slamming the ball into the middle of the goal with Weinberg looking to gain an advantage to his right.

Hunterdon Central (17-1-1) was the more dangerous team in overtime, but Marlboro senior P.J. Ringel nearly performed his third state tournament magic trick. Ringel, who scored two of Marlboro's three golden goals during the first three rounds of the tournament, go a clear look at the net in the 98th minute and unleashed a low, slicing shot toward the right post. The ball outpaced Mecodon, but eluded the right post by less than a foot to the outside of the frame.

Fittingly enough, Marlboro's only other near miss was a 15-yard strike over the bar by junior Zach Scarpa, who scored the other golden goal during Marlboro's run to the sectional final. Beyond that, Marlboro did not generate a serious threat against a Red Devils defense that has allowed five goals in 19 games this season.

After setting a school record with 20 wins, winning the Class A North public division title and reaching the championship game in both the Central Group IV and Shore Conference Tournaments, Marlboro (20-2-2) will bid farewell to 17 seniors. That includes Ringel, who will graduate as the program's second-leading all-time goal-scorer and third-leading point-scorer after a 21-goal senior season.

"I say all the time: you're only going to go as far as your seniors take you," Santos said. "Coming in, we had the 17 seniors and particularly the three captains - Justin Goldstein, Josh Grun and Ryan LaRocca - who are team-first, hard-working guys of character and a lot of times teams take the personality of their captains and we did, for sure."

In other sectional finals...

North Jersey Section 2, Group III

(1) Hopewell Valley 2, (6) Middletown North 1

For the second straight year, the Middletown North boys soccer team saw its state playoff run end at Hopewell Valley. This time, it was a second-half header by Max Wills in the 51st minute that sank the Lions and delivered the Bulldogs the winning goal and their first sectional championship in 11 years.

Ryan Harmon buried a direct kick in the 20th minute pulled Middletown North (14-5-2) even at 1 after Wills's corner kick found the head of Dante Bettino for the opening goal.

Middletown North lost to Hopewell Valley (20-4) in last year's North 2 Group III semifinal, 4-2, after beating Chatham and Summit in the first two rounds. Middletown North beat Chatham and Summit again on the way to its first sectional final appearance since 1999, but unfortunately for the Lions, the script remained completely the same as last year's.

Central Jersey Group II

(2) Bernards 1, (13) Rumson-Fair Haven 0

It took the Rumson-Fair Haven boys soccer team an entire season to find its groove and once it did, the Bulldogs were oh-so-close to turning a late-season surge into program history.

Rumson battled red-hot Bernards to a scoreless draw through one half, but Dan Paez broke loose for the game's lone goal early in the second half to give the Mountaineers a 1-0 win and the Central Jersey Group II championship.

While Rumson (10-13) entered the game as the highest seed still alive in the entire state tournament after entering its postseason 7-12, Bernards was an even hotter team. The Mountaineers (20-1-1) extended their unbeaten streak to 20 games and have won 15 games in a row.

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