Matt O'Connell of Pinelands and Mike Schoener of Jackson Memorial were two of the most dangerous strikers in the Shore Conference over the previous two seasons and their respective teams entered the 2017 season having to figure out how to thrive without them.

After another win for each team on Monday, Pinelands and Jackson Memorial are proving that they have a chance to be just as good, if not better, behind their next wave of players.

Both the Wildcats and the Jaguars improved to 3-0 on Monday, with Pinelands rolling to a 4-1 win over five-time defending Class B South champion Point Pleasant Borough and Jackson Memorial taking down three-time defending Class A South champion Toms River South, 2-0, in Toms River.

Five teams in the Shore Conference are off to 3-0 starts through Monday - Christian Brothers Academy, Asbury Park and Holmdel are the other three - and Pinelands and Jackson Memorial are the only two from Ocean County. The two teams have both posted dominant goal differentials as well, with Jackson Memorial outscoring its three opponents 8-1 and Pinelands doing so 12-2.

The two teams are also off to hot starts despite young rosters. Of the 20 goals scored by the two teams, only one of them has been scored by a senior and it was a game-winning penalty kick in overtime by Cade Sundermann in Pinelands' win over Southern on Saturday.

For Pinelands, juniors Kieran Sundermann, Dom Dos Santos and Anthony Diaz have been prominent goal-scorers so far, while fellow junior Aniello Lubrano has been a facilitator in the midfield. Sophomore Creed Nas and freshman John Hart have also gotten into the act for the Wildcats, while Cade Sundermann has captained the defense in front of sophomore goalkeeper Logan Johnson.

Both Kieran Sundermann and Dos Santos scored two goals each in Monday's 4-1 win over Point Boro in which the Wildcats scored all four of their goals during a 29-minute span between the 20th and 49th minutes to lay claim to a 4-0 lead. Sundermann now has three goals and two assists through three games, while Dos Santos logged his second two-goal game of the year. He also scored twice in a 6-0 win over Lakewood.

Diaz and Nas also have two goals each for Pinelands, with Diaz scoring in both the opener vs. Lakewood and in the 2-1 win over Southern on Saturday. Nas scored twice against Lakewood in his first varsity game.

"We talked a lot before the season about the kind of team we wanted to be and I think the one thing about this group is they know exactly who they are and who they want to be," Pinelands first-year head coach and former assistant Nino Scotto di Carlo said. "We have a lot of guys with skill, we move the ball, we play soccer and we make teams chase. We also have multiple guys who can finish and when you can possess the ball and beat teams with a few different guys, it's tough to defend."

All this early success has come despite the fact that O'Connell and his 32 goals from a year ago graduated. Pinelands placed a great deal of offensive burden on O'Connell and while he handled it for most of the year, he eventually broke down and missed the team's final four games with a back injury.

The injury to O'Connell likely damaged Pinelands' chances at making a deeper run in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III playoffs, but it proved to the returning players they could play and remain competitive without their top scoring option.

"We ran almost everything through Matt last year and rightfully so - he's a great player," said Scotto di Carlo of O'Connell, who is a freshman at Division I American University. "When you have a player like that, you don't really have a choice but to get him the ball and that might have limited some of our other players. It's not a bad problem to have, but I think we came in wanting to play a little bit differently this year and our guys embraced it."

Jackson Memorial's offense, meanwhile, has come primarily from two players - sophomore Dan Russo and junior Joe Schlageter. Russo has scored in each game of Jackson's three games so far, including two goals in a 2-0, opening-day win over Brick Memorial and the game-winning goal in the 65th minute Monday against Toms River South. With the game scoreless in the final quarter of regulation, Russo earned a free kick just outside the top of the 18-yard box and bent a left-footed shot into the upper left corner of the frame to break the scoreless tie. Junior Logan Lewis then followed with his first varsity goal in the 78th minute to cap the win.

Schlageter, meanwhile, helped lead Jackson Memorial to a 4-1 win over Freehold Borough, which opened its season with a win over Colts Neck and a tough, 1-0 loss to CBA. Schlageter scored two goals in the win, with Russo and junior Riley Keating adding a goal apiece. Schlageter also added an assist in the win over Brick Memorial and assisted Lewis's goal on Monday night.

Junior goalkeeper Nick Kinzler has also stepped up and seized the starting job after sharing time with current sophomore Joe Weinstein last year. Kinzler has secured two shutouts and made seven saves on Monday, including a pair of diving saves two minutes apart from one another in the first half.

Jackson Memorial has established a reputation for physicality over the 13 years Steve Bado has been head coach, but this year's team does not have as much size as some of the Jaguars teams of recent vintage and has made up for it with creativity in the final third of the field.

"We are young, but we have some legitimate soccer players out there," Bado said. "A lot of the guys who came back were near the top of our scoring leaders and they are a year older and a year better. So even though we don't have a lot of seniors, we have guys who have played a lot of soccer and have played a lot together, so it doesn't surprise me that they have played well this early."

The Jaguars also built on their success at Toms River South, where they won a 1-0 Shore Conference Tournament round-of-16 game last season as a No. 19 seed against the third-seeded Indians.

Of course, the success of both the Jaguars and the Wildcats comes with the caveat that the season is still very young and both have a long way to go in order to reach the goal of a division title. Last year Pinelands led the Class B South race for most of the season before losing to Point Boro in the final regular-season game, giving the Panthers the outright B South title and denying the Wildcats their first division title since 1989. Pinelands even beat the Panthers 4-1 in the first meeting.

"We are much more prepared for the long season this year," Scotto di Carlo said. "We aren't relying on one guy to carry us, which helps us tactically and physically. We can win games with a few different guys leading us and we also don't have to ask somebody to play 80 minutes and carry us every game."

Jackson Memorial has to survive the rough-and-tumble A South schedule to claim its first A South crown since 2012, when the Jaguars entered the Shore Conference Tournament undefeated and reached the Central Jersey Group IV championship game.

"You can never get too overconfident playing in A South and I think my guys understand that they have to bring their best every day and take it one game at a time," Bado said. "There is still a long way to go and I think we've shown that we have the potential to play with anybody, but we have to stay focused and continue to improve."

 

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