Long Branch senior Guilherme De Novaes knew long before Sept. 5 that his surgically-repaired left knee was healed and healthy enough to handle the demands of a soccer game, specifically one played by a dynamic striker with the ball at his feet.

Until that date came, however, De Novaes was still plagued by some level of uncertainty. No matter how many preseason goals he scored, minutes he played, compliments he accepted or reassurances he got, nothing was certain until he could perform in his first regular season since his sophomore year.

“I was really nervous before the game,” De Novaes said, referencing the team’s opener against Rumson. “I hadn’t played a real game since my sophomore year, and I didn’t know how I would feel or if I could still play like I used to.”

Long Branch senior Guilherme De Novaes is off to a fast start in 2014 after missing all of 2013 with a torn ACL. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Almost a year to the day after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the team’s final game of the preseason, De Novaes unleashed a performance that may not have completely made up for lost time, but showed his teammates and anyone watching what they missed last season and, more importantly, what might be to come this year.

In his first regular-season game back since the surgery to repair the torn ACL, De Novaes scored all five Long Branch goals in the Green Wave’s 5-1, opening-night win at Rumson-Fair Haven – last year’s Shore Conference Tournament and NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II runner-up, as well as the Class A Central co-champion. In six games so far this season, De Novaes has already scored 10 goals, the second-highest total in the entire Shore Conference.

“It’s an incredible feeling just to be out on the field and playing again,” De Novaes said. “I never imagined scoring five goals in the first game, so to be able to do that and to win that first game together as a team, I’m just so happy.”

After spending his first two high school seasons on the Monmouth Regional varsity team, last year was supposed to be De Novaes’ first year at Long Branch and the prospects were exciting for both him and his teammates. According to Long Branch coach Adrian Castro, De Novaes had scored six goals during his first four preseason games and the Green Wave were generating plenty of buzz as a potential sleeper to contend for tournament championships later in the year.

Then, in the fifth and final preseason game, De Novaes went down clutching his left knee in pain. Later that week, he was diagnosed with a complete ACL tear and underwent surgery on Oct. 1.

“It had a big effect on us because we had to move guys into different roles at the last minute and we just never got comfortable with the new positions and new assignments for everybody,” Castro said. “With Guilherme back now, everybody goes back to the role they had before and now we have that option up top that allows us to play direct if we need to. Last year, we could play side to side, but we weren’t much of a threat going forward.”

While De Novaes sat on the sidelines, his team suffered as well. Despite returning seven starters from a team that reached the Central Jersey Group II final, Long Branch floundered without its top scoring threat, finishing 6-10-2 overall and last place in the Shore Conference Class B North division.

“The hardest part was not knowing if I was ever going to be able to play like I used to,” De Novaes said. “That, and knowing I couldn’t help my team when they were struggling.

“I started thinking my career might be over, but my physical therapist told me that a lot of players make a full recovery. I just got right to work and I told myself I was going to get back as soon as possible.”

De Novaes was able to get back on the field for training within six months and by the time camp opened up in mid-August, he had already shed his knee brace, a common accessory of ACL recoveries for at least the first year back.

“He didn’t wear the brace for long,” Castro said. “After a few days, he threw it off to the side and said, ‘Forget this thing. Let’s go.’”

There is still plenty of season left for things to go one way or another for De Novaes and his team. Long Branch is 4-2 to start the year, with De Novaes scoring in each of the team’s four wins and being shutout – along with the rest of the team – in the two Green Wave losses. He and his coach expect defenses to start keying on him even more as the season progresses, which is a challenge De Novaes welcomes. Finally, his challenges in soccer are once again relegated to the field.

“I don’t know if I feel all the way back yet, but I’m getting closer every day,” De Novaes said. “I’m just happy I made it back for my senior year and for my team.”

 

Hertgen Hurt No More

Joey Hertgen’s path back to the varsity soccer field was different from that of De Novaes, but the impact he has made upon his return has been similar. Unlike De Novaes, Hertgen spent his freshman year playing in the lower levels of a deep Toms River North program before getting his varsity opportunity as a sophomore in 2013.

He also made it to the field on opening night as a starting midfielder for the Mariners, but four games into the season, Hertgen suffered a broken tibia, ending a promising first season with the Mariners.

“It was obviously very frustrating watching from the bench last year knowing that I had to wait until next year to play,” Hertgen said. “I felt like I had a chance to help the team last year. We had a good season, but it was disappointing that I couldn’t be a part of it.”

Hertgen was cleared to play again on Jan. 1 of this year and began working his way back to competitive play. In preparing to pick up where he left off last year, Hertgen found he was able to refine his game more than he had in any other offseason.

“I’ve definitely improved since last year,” Hertgen said. “I’ve been training non-stop and working on every aspect of my game that I can. I think I could have been a help last year too, but I got hurt.”

The results of his preparation have helped Hertgen start this season with a flurry. Playing for a Toms River North team that returned only nine of its 33 goals from 2013, the junior center midfielder has been a major catalyst in helping the Mariners get off to one of the best starts of any team in the Shore Conference. Since losing to Kearny, 4-0, on opening day, Toms River North is 4-0 with 14 goals, including 13 during a three-game stretch against Wall, Lacey and Brick Memorial.

Hertgen’s deciding goal against Lacey on Sept. 12 was the first of his high school career and he promptly followed that achievement by scoring his first career hat trick in a 6-2 drubbing of Brick Memorial four nights later.

“He’s got a great engine,” Toms River North coach Joe Mahon said of Hertgen. “He’s not only an offensive guy, but he’s a defensive guy, so he’ll get back. So to have that element, which you don’t always get from an offensive center midfielder, is huge. Plus, he’s a great kid – he’s smart on the field, he’s smart in the classroom, he works hard and he’s a dangerous player. Tough kid.”

 

Underdogs

Matawan coach Dave Deegan is hoping for his team to fly under the radar for as long as possible this season, but as the Class A Central standings begin to take shape, it’s hard to ignore the team at the top at the moment.

With just one loss on its ledger – a 1-0 defeat at the hands of defending division co-champion and perennial Shore Conference power Holmdel – Matawan is off to a 4-1 start that suggests the Huskies are ready to build off a solid 2013 season and are far-removed from a difficult 4-14 campaign in 2012.

Senior Alex Cella has scored seven goals in five games to help lead Matawan to a 4-1 start. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“I’ve seen a lot of the teams out there that are supposed to be some of the favorites in the Shore Conference,” Deegan said. “I’m not saying we’re better than those teams or even as good as those teams, but I think we can play with teams of that caliber. We have a very fast and a very intelligent group, and I think we can still get better.”

The Huskies’ latest victory came Saturday against their neighbor from down the road, St. John Vianney. Although the Lancers outshot the Huskies and peppered the Matawan goal over the final 10 minutes in search of the equalizer, Matawan emerged with a 1-0 win that left Deegan hopeful his team could improve on its effort and impressed by its ability to fight through what he thought was an off day.

Senior Matt Isaacson scored Matawan’s lone goal in the win over St. John Vianney off a through ball from his fellow center midfielder, junior Bronson Dhume. Isaacson pushed up to play forward while fighting fatigue in the second half, illustrating the Huskies' versatility to move pieces around and create scoring threats to go with senior striker and leading scorer Alex Cella.

“Speed is huge in soccer,” Isaacson said. “Speed and intelligence is what wins you games. We just need to get after fifty-fifty balls and try to play to our speed, especially with Cella up top, and we feel like we’re a dangerous team.”

Cella is off to another strong start to 2014 after scoring eight goals as a junior last year. The senior already has seven goals this season with at least one goal in three of the four Huskies wins. He scored four goals in a 7-1 win over Manchester to open the season and also scored two in a 2-1 win over Raritan on Wednesday.

 

South’s Iron Wall

It took Holmdel only 14 minutes to score its first goal of the season against Toms River South in the opener for both teams back on Sept. 8. That was the last time any team has scored on Toms River South.

In 306-plus minutes since allowing that goal to Holmdel sophomore Brendan Wall, the Indians have shut out the opposition, which included a come-from-behind, 2-1 victory over Holmdel in that initial game. Toms River South has managed only six goals themselves, but a defense that helped carry a 9-9-2 team last year has been even better to start 2014, led by senior goalkeeper Kollin White and seniors Kieran Murphy and Michael Braun.

“Having that experience in the back is huge,” said senior center midfielder Jordan Urbaczek, who scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Jackson Memorial on Thursday. “Those guys did a great job last year and with another year of experience, we’ve just been more composed playing in close games.”

Toms River South will put its defense to the test over the next eight days, which include games against high-powered attacks of Brick Memorial on Monday and Toms River South on Sept. 30.

“It would be nice to score more, but we know a lot of times, with the defense we have, one goal is going to be enough,” Urbaczek said.

 

Hornets Stung by Injury

Holmdel is off to a surprisingly pedestrian 3-3 start and a lack of health could have a lot to do with it. After missing center fullback Nick Zolofra for the first four games of the season with a foot injury, the Hornets have been without All-Shore goalkeeper Tyler Marchiano for the last three games due to a number of nagging ailments, according to coach John Nacarlo.

According to Nacarlo, Marchiano will likely be out for another week, a span during which Holmdel has only one game scheduled – a Saturday slate against Monmouth. The Hornets open up the following week at crosstown rival St. John Vianney.

 

Arrow pointing North

Middletown North got off to a disappointing start with a senior-heavy roster, but came on strong this past week, beginning with a pair of bizarre draws. The Lions handed unbeaten Manalapan its first tie of the season by rallying from a late 2-0 deficit despite playing a man down following a red card earlier in the game.

Two days after beating the defending Shore Conference Tournament champion while playing a man short, Middletown North was on the other end of a red card and played with a man advantage against Howell for nearly 70 minutes. This time, the Lions were the team that failed to take advantage of the extra man and settled for a 1-1 draw.

After the two 100-minute battles earlier in the week, Middletown North finished its challenging week by handing Freehold Township its first loss of the season on a penalty kick in the final 15 minutes. After surrendering 10 goals over their first seven halves (280 minutes) of soccer this year, the Lions have limited opponents to just one goal over their last 240 minutes.