OAKHURST - With a deep stable and scorers and an athletic goalkeeper, the Ocean High School boys soccer team has the kind of lineup made to survive a round of penalty kicks, which seemed a distinct possibility in the waning minutes of the Spartans' NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III final Friday against West Windsor-Plainsboro North.

Senior Ryan Wells and his team, however, did not want to merely survive. With the program's first NJSIAA sectional title in 15 years within reach, they wanted to win it with a hard-earned goal.

Wells delivered the hardest-earned of goals after nearly 100 minutes of soccer, heading in a corner kick by freshman Santino Harding with 1:30 left in the second overtime period to down the Knights, 1-0, on a golden goal for Ocean's first sectional title since 2000.

"I saw the ball go in out of the corner of my eye and I just couldn't believe it," said Wells, who ran away from teammates as they chased after him before ultimately piling on. "It's just an amazing feeling."

With the clock inside of two minutes remaining between game action and a round of penalty kicks to determine the sectional champion, Ocean again put the heat on the Knights defense and goalkeeper Oliver Sapon. Senior Wadneson Alexis broke through the shell in the back, but the ball was cleared away before he could unleash a shot to give Ocean a corner kick.

"We were just trying to keep it calm and not make any stupid mistakes because we felt like we had the game under control," Alexis said. "I was able to get in and get a corner and then I just tried to make a near post run. Next thing I saw was the ball go in the net."

To coach Tom Reilly's recollection, Harding had not taken a corner kick all season long, but he was a staple for the Spartans taking corners on Tuesday. His last service proved to be his most productive, as he swung the ball into the box with his left foot and laid it right in front of the goal.

"We worked specifically on corner kicks at practice (Thursday) and Santino was taking them from that side of the field," Reilly said. "We have been long on our corners too often and he was pretty consistent at keeping them dangerous, so we decided to have him take the kicks from that side of the field where he could swing it in with his left foot and get us an opportunity."

With one more chance to finish the game, Wells stormed in for a header and the game-winning goal to set off the celebration.

"I was a bit frustrated considering we created a lot of chances and they didn't and we still didn't capitalize," Wells said. "Especially on the free kick that I got robbed on. It definitely made me more eager to score a goal and on that last opportunity, on the corner kick, I just told myself, 'I'm definitely getting a head on this one.'"

Wells nearly won the game in the first overtime in grand fashion. He blasted 45-yard direct kick on frame in the 87th minute, but West Windsor North goalkeeper Oliver Sapon parried the ball away from the upper left corner of the goal. Two minutes earlier, Vincenzo Pugliese gave Ocean a scare when his strike from 12 yards out hit the crossbar.

"That's what you deal with in any match," Reilly said. "This probably the only sport where a team that dominates the game can lose because of one play. That's always a risk and with their two big guys on the attack, it was a concern."

Ocean dominated play to the tune of a 16-4 advantage in shots and a 10-0 advantage in corner kicks, all while holding Pugliese and fellow junior Josh Schupak (17 goals) in check. Senior Braylin Estrella nearly scored 30 seconds into the game for Ocean, but his header of a cross from Senior Marlhens Nasanes hit the near right post. Less than a minute into the second half, Knights defender Keval Kothary saved a shot by Estrella off the goal-line with Sapon off his line and on the ground.

Friday's win also marked Ocean's first appearance in the sectional final since 2001. Like Harding and James Schutz on this team, Alexis served as a spark off the bench as a freshman on Ocean's 2012 Shore Conference Tournament championship squad - the only tournament championship team at Ocean since the Spartans won the SCT and reached the sectional final in 2001.

"This one is special, because I've been wanting to win a state championship since I got here and we haven't won it for a while," Alexis said. "Shore Conference was great, but this is even better because I know how hard we've been working for the last four years."

Wells and fellow senior defender Luis Araya were also starters, along with Alexis, on Ocean's SCT semifinalist in 2013. Wells and Araya have gone from promising players on the outside to senior stalwarts in the middle of the defense.

"They were both sophomore starting outside backs when we lost in the (SCT) semifinals, so that was a trial under fire for them against a lot of good competition," Reilly said. "Last year, they moved into the middle and learned their way while we had some struggles, particularly against really good sides. Now, they've all matured and those guys are marshalling the defense. (Schupak and Pugliese) are good players and I don't think we gave them much."

Ocean will take on Toms River South next in the Group III semifinals Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. at Toms River North High School. The two Shore Conference programs met during last year's Shore Conference Tournament round of 16, with the Indians escaping in penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw on their home field.

"They are similar to us in that they know what they do well and they are going to try to do that," Reilly said. "They're athletic, they're fast, they win the air, so they'll present a whole different set of problems than what West Windsor did today."

With a win Tuesday, Ocean will punch a ticket to its first group final since winning the overall Group III championship in 1996.

"We weren't really mature enough and ready to win last year, to be honest" Wells said. "I think the fact that we had a close game with (Toms River South) and they knocked us off will give us that extra urge to win this game."

 

Box Score

Ocean 1, West Windsor-Plainsboro North 0 (OT)

1 2 OT OT F
WWP North (12-7-1) 0 0 0 0 0
Ocean (19-4) 0 0 0 1 1

Goals (Assists): Ryan Wells (Santino Harding) 99’
Shots: Ocean, 16-4
Saves: (WWPN) Oliver Sapon 4; (O) Yianni Kavarakas 0