MANALAPAN – Twice during its NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV quarterfinal game on Thursday against No. 7 seed Brick Memorial, the second-seeded Manalapan boys soccer team let the two players at the top of the Mustangs scouting report beat them for goals within the first three minutes of either half.

In order to get back in the game, the Braves turned not to the first line of a scouting report or the top line of any scoring list, but rather to a junior sparkplug.

Junior Ayush Mittal scored two equalizers to erase two different deficits and Manalapan rode a second-half scoring wave for a 5-2 win over the Mustangs and into a Central Jersey Group IV semifinal rematch against defending sectional champion and No. 6 seed Hunterdon Central on Monday.

Mitchel Volis (10) battles Brick Memorial's Jake DeGennaro (3) for position Thursday during the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV quarterfinals. Volis scored the winning goal in Manalapan's 5-2 victory. (Photo by Matt Manley)

While Manalapan runs its attack primarily through Adam Weisberger, Rob Pratka and Mitchel Volis in the middle and leading scorer Ryan Hammer up top, the Braves frequently turn to Mittal to pressure defenses with his speed and work rate on the outside.

“My role on this team is to go work hard for as long as I can and try to create an opportunity for my team,” Mittal said. “I haven’t been able to finish many goals this year, but I have always tried to work hard and put pressure on the defense, and today, I was lucky enough to finish when my team needed me to.”

Brick Memorial jumped on Manalapan twice in the game, first with a goal by senior forward and leading scorer Bryan Malerba in the third minute of the game and later on a goal by senior midfielder Kevin Simek 2:30 into the second half to give the Mustangs a 2-1 lead.

Mittal pulled Manalapan even by halftime with his first goal in the 35th minute. The junior split two defenders and slid a high shot inside the near right post.

Manalapan played from behind for the better part of 12 minutes in the second half before Mittal struck for the second time. Off a throw-in from Hammer, Mittal lined up a shot from the right side and hit a strike that skipped out in front of goalkeeper Kurt Reber and bounced into the goal to tie the game.

“We’re not very senior-heavy, but our egos carry over from player to player,” Pratka said. “Everyone knew, even the younger guys, that we had 20 to 25 minutes to score as many goals as we could or our season was over. Our backs were against the wall, but we were still confident we were going to get it done, and it showed.”

A little more than five minutes after Mittal’s game-tying goal, Manalapan took the lead for good. Pratka played the ball through from midfield toward the left border of the six-yard box, where Volis ran onto it and slid it past Reber for the winning tally. Pratka later scored in the 64th minute, knocking in a touch by sophomore Rocky Garretson off a corner kick by Volis to make the score 4-2.

“With the players we have, instead of looking to get the ball to one specific player, we can look at how the defense is marking and try to play match-ups,” Pratka said. “If there is a slower kid on Ayush, I’ll look to get him the ball more often. If there is a more physical player on Mitchel, I’ll look to be more technical around him and play one-two with him. On a given day, everything can work and we’re just lucky that we have so many combinations that we can play.”

Hammer then added to his team-leading goal total in the 70th by one-timing a pass from Weisberger into the net following a combination between Pratka and Volis for Hammer’s 19th score of the season.

Senior starting goalkeeper Mike Cavanaugh also kept the Braves in the game by saving a shot each by Simek and Malerba in the first half. He came off of his line to make a sliding save on Simek in the ninth minute and dove to snatch a shot by Malerba in the 38th.

Manalapan had not scored more than two goals in a game since a 4-0 win over Howell on Oct. 15, but has erupted for 12 over its first two NJSIAA Tournament games. The Braves blitzed Freehold 7-1 in Monday’s opening round and followed that performance up with four goals in the second half against Brick Memorial. The Braves hammered down the Mustangs' barricade with 19 shots and finally broke through with Mittal’s second goal, which triggered a 15-minute stretch in which Manalapan scored its four goals.

“We had a stretch where we were creating opportunities and it was just a matter of executing,” Manalapan coach John Natoli said. “You miss a couple and rather than put you head down, you just keep working and trying to get better and that’s the attitude our guys have.

“After we lost in the Shore Conference Tournament (semifinals) to Freehold Township, we took a couple of days off and I think that helped. We came back to practice and guys were very positive and very energetic about getting another opportunity in the state tournament. We had a really productive couple days, and I think the new challenge and the fresh start has kind of rejuvenated everybody.”

On Monday, Manalapan will look to punch a ticket to its first sectional final since winning a share of the Group IV title in 2007 and will have to go through the team that ended its 2013 season to get there. Hunterdon Central defeated Manalapan, 2-1, in last year’s sectional semifinal and the only difference this season – other than the new rosters – will be the venue.

“They know how to win,” Pratka said of Hunterdon Central. “They probably aren’t the most technically gifted team, but they have grit and determination and that is what wins. Playing them at their place probably hurt us a little bit just because of the long bus ride and the different field, but they are going to have to come here this time, which should help us.”

“They ended our season last year,” Mittal said. “We want revenge.”


Box Score

Manalapan 5, Brick Memorial 2




Brick Memorial (13-6-2)




Manalapan (14-3-3)




Goals (Assists): (BM) Malerba 3’, Simek (Malerba) 43’; (M) Mittal 35’, Mittal 55’, Volis (Pratka) 62’, Pratka (Garretson) 65’, Hammer (Weisberger) 70’
Shots: Manalapan, 19-7
Saves: (BM) Reber 6; (M) Cavanaugh 3, Terr 1