Group III Championship

Saturday, Nov. 17, 5:30 p.m.

At Kean University

Ocean (20-3-1) vs. Millburn (15-4-1)

 

Ocean at a Glance

Group Championships: 1996 (Group III)

Group Championship Appearances: 1996

Road to the Final: Defeated Nottingham 4-1, Burlington Twp. 3-0, Wall 2-0, Colts Neck 2-1, Seneca 3-0

Key Players: Santieno Harding (20 goals, 7 assists), Leo Montesinos (10 goals, 7 assists), James Schutz (10 goals, 3 assists), Luke Yates (3 goals, 6 assists), Zach Sintic (2 goals, 9 assists), Max Winters (78 saves, 12 shutouts)

Saturday’s game has been four years in the making for Ocean and its talented senior class, which has already fulfilled its potential, regardless of what happens on Saturday night. State championships are hard to come by and for even the most talented classes in the most consistent programs can only dream of winning one until it actually comes time to play in the game. That dream will become reality on Saturday night at Kean, where the Spartans will play in the program’s first title game in 22 years and try to add to that lone state championships that Ocean won in 1996.

Ocean players celebrate their sectional title win over Colts Neck. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

This regular season was a somewhat unassuming for Ocean, which lost home games to Manasquan, Christian Brothers Academy and Wall and began the postseason without any standout wins. As it turned out, the Spartans were saving their best for the most important time of the season. They battled their way to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals by unassumingly beating two double-digit seeds, then shocked the Shore by upsetting No. 1 Holmdel on penalties and stunning CBA on a golden goal in the second overtime to win the conference title.

From there, Ocean has not slowed down, beating its five NJSIAA Tournament opponents by an aggregate score of 14-2, with just one game coming down to the wire. In the sectional final against Class B North division rival Colts Neck, Ocean gave up an equalizer in the 70th minute before Santieno Harding came through with the winner in the 76th. After rolling through Seneca, 3-0, on Tuesday, Ocean is now 9-0-1 since in its last 10 games and all but one of those were tournament matches.

Harding has been Ocean’s go-to scorer all year long, particularly during tournament time. Seven of Harding’s 20 goals and four of his seven assists have come during Ocean’s nine postseason games. Even Ocean’s SCT winner vs. CBA came after Harding won a throw-in against multiple CBA defenders. James Schutz has been Ocean’s other key performer during the postseason, scoring five of his 10 goals during this nine-game run by the Spartans. Harding and Schutz both played as freshmen on Ocean’s 2015 team, which won the Central Jersey Group III title and lost to CBA in the SCT final, so it should be no surprise that they are two of the most prominent contributors during the postseason run by the Spartans.

Leo Montesinos has also been a key cog for Ocean in his first year with the Spartans. Montesinos spent his first three seasons at Shore Regional and started all three years before transferring to Ocean for his final high school year. The senior midfielder led the way in Tuesday’s win over Seneca with a world-class strike on a free kick and an assist on a later goal by Andrew Shaw. He also headed in the golden goal vs. CBA in the SCT final – the biggest of his 10 goals this season.

Seniors Luke Yates and Zach Sintic have been foundational players in each of the past two seasons for Ocean, Yates as a defensive midfielder and Sintic as the defensive captain and center back. Sintic is Ocean’s free-kick specialist and Yates is its calming influence in the middle. The Spartans also have experience in the back with seniors Brent Gaber and Mark Mauro, as well as second-year contributor Elias Brandimarte. The four in the back protect Ocean’s other weapon, senior goalkeeper Max Winters, who has delivered standout performances in goal throughout the tournament season.

A lot will be made about Millburn’s big-game experience as a program, particularly considering it has played up in Group IV in recent years prior to moving down to Group III this year, but the Spartans have as much big-game experience as a team could want heading into a game of this sort.

Ocean senior Luke Yates. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Millburn at a Glance

Group Championships: 4 (1986, 1987, 2008, 2012)

Group Championship Appearances: 8 (1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989, 2008, 2009, 2012)

Road to the Final: Defeated Woodbridge 2-0, Parsippany Hills 3-0, Mendham 1-1 (5-4 on penalties), Cliffside Park 1-0, Paramus 2-1

Key Players: Alfie Smith (7 goals, 4 assists), Rory McLaughlin (5 goals, 3 assists), Alex Migoya (6 goals, 1 assist), Sam Meyerowitz (4 goals, 7 assists), Christian Clark (3 goals), Zach Barr (64 saves, 10 shutouts)

While it took Ocean four years to orchestrate this title run, it’s almost as though Millburn’s title run was declared as soon as the Millers became a Group III school this season. After battling as a Group IV contender for the past six seasons, Millburn dropped back down to Group III for 2018 and, to its credit, has taken full advantage of the opportunity by reaching the group final stage for the ninth time in program history.

Fittingly enough, the last time Millburn won an overall group title was in its first year as a Group IV program, back in 2012. Of Millburn’s four state championships, two of them were co-championships in the Group II field in 1986 and 1987 while its 2008 title was its only championship in Group III.

This year’s version of Millburn is a defensive-minded one that spreads the wealth on the attack. Its leading scorer is sophomore Alfie Smith with seven goals, which would rank fourth on Ocean’s roster, while the defense is led by junior Rory McLaughlin and senior Christian Clark in front of sophomore goalkeeper Zach Barr. The Millers have some more senior influence beyond Clark, with midfielders Sam Meyerwitz and Jack Marx playing key roles in the formation and in the locker room.

Millburn’s four losses this season are against some of the biggest names in the state: West Orange, Montclair, Kearny and Seton Hall Prep. Its draw was against defending Group III champion Mendham in the sectional semifinals and the Millers advanced with a 5-4 edge on penalty kicks. Millburn also beat Seton Hall Prep during the season – by far the best opponent the Millers have defeated in 2018.

Ocean senior Santieno Harding. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Prediction

Millburn has stepped on the field with some of the best programs perennially in N.J. and picked up a win over one of them in beating Seton Hall Prep, 1-0, with a draw against Mendham. Ocean has done the same, defeating CBA, 1-0, to win a conference title one game after defeating Holmdel on penalties. If there is a difference in the two sides, it is experience – not in Millburn’s rich tradition in the state tournament but rather in Ocean’s senior class. The Spartans have the edge in seniors and this group has been playing, essentially, year-round for six or seven years. Those kinds of teams and classes are what wins championships and while the Spartans only have one of those in their history and may have to wait some time to see another group do what this year’s team has done, the current group is built to get it done on Saturday.

The Pick: Ocean, 2-1

 

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