TUCKERTON - Pinelands senior forward Matt O’Connell stands out a lot more on the stat sheet than he does in pregame warmups, but like Wildcats eighth-year coach Jason Asch found out the first time he saw his goal-scoring dynamo play, it does not take long to watch O’Connell in game action and realize where the gaudy numbers of the past two years come from.

“I saw him play when he was in sixth or seventh grade when his older brother (Shawn) was with me,” Ash said. “I knew then he was going to be a big player for us. His brother kept telling me, ‘Wait ‘til you see him. He’s going to be unreal.’”

Standing 5-foot-8 with a slight frame, O’Connell blends in on the field until the whistle blows. That’s when he transforms into the player that running away from the rest of the field in the Shore Conference goal leaders.

After putting up three hat tricks in his team’s first four games, O’Connell scored 17 minutes into the Wildcats’ pivotal Shore Conference Class B South game against defending division co-champion Donovan Catholic – the 11th goal O’Connell has scored this season and the spark that ignited Pinelands to a 2-0 win over the Griffins on Friday.

Pinelands senior Matt O'Connell has 11 goals in five games and his Wildcats are off to a 4-1 start. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“Matty’s good at directing – he’ll tell guys where to go,” Asch said. “He’s helped himself a lot with his knowledge of where everyone is and where they are supposed to be.”

O’Connell was dangerous against a deep back line all game and his goal came when that line crept too high, allowing O’Connell to counter. The Griffins gave the senior one chance at a clean run at the goal and he made the most of it.

“You don’t necessarily see it right away, but he has the ability to hit that second gear,” Asch said. “He can stay even with a defender and if there is a ball out in front and he has some space, he can kick it up to a level that most guys can’t get to. You definitely saw that on his goal (Friday).”

Since joining the varsity team as a freshman in 2013, O’Connell has been cashing in on opportunities. After a two-goal season as a rookie, O’Connell made the leap to 16 goals as a sophomore to help Pinelands get back to the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time in four years. He followed his breakout year by scoring 19 goals and dishing out 12 assists as a junior, good for a spot on the Shore Sports Network All-Shore Third Team.

Keeping with his tendency to raise his game, O’Connell has been on a different level to start his senior year. He recorded a hat trick and assisted the other goal in a 4-3, overtime win over Lakewood, did the same against Point Pleasant Borough on Monday and added another hat trick on Wednesday against Manchester. His 11 goals lead the Shore Conference through play Friday.

“It’s just my teammates knowing where to go and what to do,” said O’Connell, whom Asch said is attracting some Division I interest, most notably from American University. “They go to open spots and I find them and when I find open space, they find me. After that, I just have to finish and these guys are making it easy on me. If you put me one-on-one in this division, I’m going to put the ball away.”

“He’s gotten better each year, even when teams key on him more each year. He’s progressing and he’s progressing (mentally) more than anything. Even (Donovan Catholic coach Ken) Oliver was saying, ‘We knew to mark him, but he was like a ghost. He kept disappearing’ He is constantly moving, and I think that’s what separates him. That, and he doesn’t get frustrated.”

With sophomore Kieran Sundermann tacking on a goal three minutes before halftime, the Wildcats took control on Friday and never let Donovan Catholic creep back in the game. It was the second win of the week for Pinelands against one of the B South co-champions from a year ago. On Monday, the Wildcats beat Point Boro 4-1, the first time Pinelands has defeated Point Boro during Asch’s tenure.

Pinelands senior Matt O'Connell directing traffic on the field. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Friday’s win puts Pinelands in first place in the B South standings and in pole position to claim an elusive division title. The last time the Wildcats had a legitimate chance to win B South, they finished second in 2006, a half-game behind first-place Lakewood.

The fuel for the turnaround comes from O’Connell and his class, who have not only brought Pinelands to prominence, but did so after playing on a three-win team as freshmen. He is part of a returning senior core that includes the team’s three top scorers from a year ago. Denilson Salgado is back after scoring 10 goals last year and Jordan Humphreys scored seven goals as a junior last year. Senior center back Corey Cusack is also an instrumental member of the senior group and, along with junior Cade Sundermann, has the Pinelands defense rounding into form over the previous three games.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we have a team that can win this division,” O’Connell said. “We’ve been putting the work in for four years now and we’ve spent a lot of time together. We knew this was going to be a process but we knew what we needed to do to be the best and we’ve done all the work to this point. Now, it’s about going out and proving ourselves.”

If the players need a reminder not to look too far ahead, they need not look too far back. They opened the season by rallying to beat Lakewood in overtime, 4-3, and lost to Southern Regional, 2-0, two days later for a shaky 1-1 start. Instead of a falling in a rut to open the season, the Wildcats bounced back with the win over Point Boro, followed by a 5-1 win over Manchester and Friday’s win over the Griffins.

As the Shore Conference’s southern-most school, Pinelands often flies under the radar barring something extraordinary. O’Connell’s performance and the team’s fast start fall into that category and now the rest of the Shore is beginning to take notice.

“He’s got the tools,” Asch said of O’Connell. “He loves playing. He’s one of these kids who will never burn out – there’s not enough soccer for him. He’s a once-in-a-lifetimer for me. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s a Division I player. I think he’s proven that.”