Boys Soccer – SCT Semifinal Preview
Shore Conference Tournament Semifinals
Monday, Oct. 23
At Ocean Township High School
The Shore Conference Tournament semifinals are upon us and Monday night’s double-header has a very 2012 feel to it. Three of the four semifinalists from five years ago will take the field at Ocean Township High School, including the 2012 champions and host Spartans. The only difference this time around is that Toms River South is still playing instead of Middletown South.
While Ocean will play Toms River South, Holmdel and Jackson Memorial will kick off the night in a rematch of the 2012 semifinals, in which Holmdel knocked off then-undefeated and top-seeded Jackson Memorial. In the second game, Ocean will look to avenge a 2015 NJSIAA Group III semifinal loss to Toms River South, so although the rosters are different, there is a theme involving payback hovering over these semifinals.
This also marks the first time this century that Class A North is not represented in the final four of the Shore Conference Tournament. Even in a down year for the division in 2012, Middletown South still found its way to the semifinals as a No. 10 seed.
Jackson Memorial (six) and Ocean (four) are second and third all-time in Shore Conference Tournament titles, although Jackson has not won since 1992. On the other side of the coin, neither Holmdel nor Toms River South have ever won an SCT title, so if those two teams can make it to Thursday, there will be a new champion(s) crowned.
First thing’s first, though: let’s sort out the semifinals.
No. 2 Holmdel (15-1, 12-0) vs. No. 3 Jackson Memorial (16-2-1, 11-2-1), 5 p.m.
For the second straight round, Holmdel will face a team that it beat as an underdog in recent years. While the Hornets took out undefeated Jackson Memorial in the 2012 semifinals, they also beat Howell on the road in the 2011 quarterfinals – the only two years Holmdel has ever been to a Shore Conference Tournament final. Howell had it chance to avenge the Class of 2012 in the quarterfinals and instead walked into a mine field: Holmdel scored five goals in the first half and cruised through the last 40 minutes on the way to a 5-0 win over the Rebels.
If the Jaguars are to earn a different result on Monday, they will have to play defensive and that shouldn’t be an issue. Although this is a different Jackson Memorial team in a lot of ways than in year’s past, the Jaguars still get numbers behind the ball and give their forwards space to operate on the counter-attack. What makes this Jackson team unique is the skill on the attack and on Monday night, the Jaguars will try to get those attackers, particularly sophomore Dan Russo and Joe Schlageter out on the run against a Holmdel back four that does like to push forward and get involved in the offense. That could either work out in Jackson’s favor, or be its undoing if those extra defenders make the difference in creating quality chances.
On Holmdel’s side, the challenge is to stay in its game. As Pinelands learned in a 4-0 loss in Jackson, the Jaguars can be a frustrating team to play. They are not afraid to concede possession while focusing more on defending the goal and opening up the counter-attack, particularly when there is a chance to get a scorer like Russo a chance to make a play in the final third of the field. The Hornets are unlikely to put up five goals in a half again, but with their athleticism, toughness and experience to go along with their top-notch talent, they should be built to withstand what Jackson will throw at them. The Jaguars are still a very young team, which makes it hard to see them contending with the sheer physicality of Justin McStay and Anthony Arena up top. Even Cyrus Darvish and Joe Arena in the midfield have been workhorses who play bigger than their size. The x-factor could be Mikey Neff, who has been dangerous from the outside fullback position. If he is involved without leaving Holmdel exposed to a counter, Jackson Memorial will have a hard time keeping up.
Jackson is capable of hanging around and springing the upset, but it will probably take at least two goals, a great game from junior keeper Nick Kinzler and some errant shooting from the Holmdel scorers. Jackson has not given up more than two goals in any game this season and only conceded two goals twice. While Pinelands is not Holmdel, the Wildcats have been a dangerous scoring team this year and could not muster a goal on Friday. It’s also worth noting Holmdel went scoreless in its only loss – a 1-0 defeat at Pingry.
If Neff is the x-factor among the players, the inanimate x-factor is the turf. Holmdel lives on the artificial surface, while Jackson is a grass team and the big field and fast surface play to Holmdel’s advantage. If Jackson can frustrate Holmdel early, the Jaguars will have a chance, but it will probably take a couple of early goals rather than just one to get the ball rolling. With so much experience and talent thought, Holmdel is ready to win now. With CBA gone, it’s hard to see this being anything other than Holmdel’s year.
The Pick: Holmdel, 3-1
No. 5 Ocean (15-2-1, 13-1-0) vs. No. 8 Toms River South (11-4-2, 9-4-1), 7 p.m.
After surviving a wild 4-3 game against Class B North rival Monmouth on Friday, the Ocean players had to think they were going to get a shot against the No. 1 seed CBA. Instead, it will be Toms River South riding into town after the Indians took down the Colts in a shootout following a dead-heat over the first 100 minutes with the No. 1 seed. In a sense, this game could be a trap for both teams: both might think the game gets easier because it won’t be CBA on the other side of the field, with Ocean avoiding the Colts in this round and Toms River South having just beaten the top team in the field.
For that reason, the beginning of the game could make the difference if one of the teams comes out sharp and the other comes out a little flat. Both got through very tough, emotional games in the quarterfinals and will have to build back that intensity level. As long as neither concedes a goal early, this game should build into a competitive, evenly-matched affair.
Ocean enters the game on a 13-game unbeaten streak and the only game the Spartans did not win during the current run was a shootout win over Point Boro in the SCT round of 16. The three goals by Monmouth were the highest goal total the Spartans have given up during the streak, while they also scored four goals for just the second time during the streak. Friday’s game was an outlier for an Ocean side that has shut down the scoring of opponents over the last month. Monmouth striker Joel Burgos gave Ocean fits on Friday in in a regular-season meeting between the teams, so the Spartans will be happy not to face a player like that on Monday night.
The Spartans will also benefit from a healthier Santieno Harding, who has been hampered by a knee injury for part of the season, but just scored two goals in the win over Monmouth. Harding, Steve Carton and Luke Yates give Ocean a trio of scorers who are clicking right now and against another team that defends well, plays hard and keeps the ball effectively, Ocean will need its finishers to come through.
Toms River South will likely be shorthanded Monday as sophomore Shane Kluxen – who scored in each of the Indians’ last two SCT games – left the CBA game with concussion-like symptoms. While that is something to overcome, Toms River South is not overly-reliant on one person to score goals, so any absence is more of a strain on the depth than the scoring. That could still be a factor for a high-energy Indians team that outworked CBA for the final 30 minutes of a 100-minute game on Saturday.
One of the concerns for Toms River South has to be the two-day turnaround after a draining win over CBA, particularly considering that the Indians were nicked up at the end of the final week of the regular season. Center midfielder Clem Slavick has dealt with a hip injury for most of the year and although he is started to round into form, bouncing back from an overtime game against a team like CBA will be a challenge. Senior Matt Babcock limped off the field during the overtime period against CBA as well before eventually returning. If Toms River South loses, it could have as much to do with attrition as it does with execution.
The second game of Monday’s double-header will pit the team with the longest unbeaten streak in the conference against the team coming off the biggest win. If Toms River South can get back to the energy level it reached against CBA, the Indians will be hard to beat, particularly if sophomore goalkeeper Jalen Folsom can turn in a similar performance to the one he did on Saturday. Expect this one to be a lot more like Ocean’s previous tournament games and less like the Monmouth goal-scoring bonanza.
The Pick: Toms River South, 2-1
Quarterfinal Record: 3-1
Overall Picks Record: 18-7