STAFFORD TWP. - The Southern Regional boys soccer program is still trying to reach the level of success of the Jackson Memorial program - arguably Ocean County's best during the last half-century.

In the meantime, however, the Rams are doing a nearly perfect job of playing spoiler against the Jaguars during the two-plus seasons under head coach Guy Lockwood.

On Wednesday, Southern stunned Jackson Memorial - the No. 3 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - 1-0 to hand the Jaguars their first loss of the season and deny them a chance to clinch the Shore Conference Class A South championship for a second straight season.

Since Lockwood took over the Rams head coaching job ahead of the 2016 season, No. 9 Southern is 4-1 in head-to-head match-ups vs. Jackson Memorial.

"We try to treat all of the opponents in A South alike," Lockwood said. "The guys know when they come in against Jackson, they are a team that's been at the top of the table in A South the last few years so I'm sure there is some extra motivation there."

Sophomore Kevin Kiernan landed the shot that sent Jackson reeling, burying a 25-yard direct kick in the 21st minute for the game's lone goal after a handball set up the kick. Kiernan's strike marked the first time this season that Jackson Memorial has trailed and it was only the fifth goal the Jaguars and goalkeeper Nick Kinzler have allowed this year.

Southern sophomore Kevin Kiernan. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"It was a spot where I like to take it," Kiernan said. "They have a good goalie so I knew I had to try to bend it around him and inside the far post and I was able to get it there."

Kiernan currently leads Southern with six goals and also had the game-winner in a 1-0 win over Toms River South back on Sept. 11 and his team is 4-0-1 when he scores a goal.

"He is notches ahead intellectually in this game," Lockwood said. "The size isn't all there yet, but it doesn't matter right now. He is able to swim his way in and out of guys - he is very creative at holding onto the ball. He is creating things for us, he is holding onto the ball for us and he has done and overall fantastic job."

Just five minutes after Kiernan's goal, Jackson Memorial leading scorer and junior forward Dan Russo broke loose behind the defense and missed a clean look at the goal from 10 yards out. It was the first and best of two unimpeded looks at the goal he had in the first half.

"We knew who we had to stop and we really just played are normal shape and did a good job of not letting too much get behind us," Lockwood said. "They (Jackson) have a lot of good players and if you try to focus on one guy, you're opening up an opportunity for another player to beat you. So we didn't man-mark, we didn't key on any one guy. We just defended."

The Jaguars kept up the pressure in the second half without scoring the equalizer. Russo turned the corner on the right side and found senior Andrew Keating right in front of the goal, but Keating's one-timed shot popped over the crossbar.

Senior Joe Schlageter fired a shot on goal near the midway point of the second half that Southern goalkeeper Braden Dugan parried away with a diving save to his lower right.

Junior centerback Ben Hanneman helped coordinate the defensive effort in the back and nearly got himself a goal when he elevated over a crowd and slammed a header just over the crossbar on a Kevin Kiernan corner kick.

With 19 minutes left to play, Jackson Memorial owned a 12-8 advantage in shots but Southern turned up the possession and the pressure over the final 19 to shut down a Jaguars comeback attempt. The Rams outshot the visitors 7-0 during that stretch to finish with a 15-12 edge in total shots and 6-4 on goal.

Kiernan dominated the midfield with his ability to control the ball and find runners, most commonly seniors Nico Wojdyla and Jose Bonilla.

"What's been building, even in our recent losses, is our possession and our ability to control the game," Lockwood said. "I think what you saw today was some good, creative work in the midfield, we didn't have to rush forward. We were able to get the goal a little bit earlier on and we were able to possess the ball, and that's been there in some of the losses but today we were able to get a lead and our defense and our keeper were very strong."

Prior to Wednesday, Southern had failed to win any of its previous five games, going 0-4-1 following its 4-0 start to the season. The slide started with an overtime loss at Long Branch and included losses to Shawnee, Brick and Howell, as well as a tie against Toms River North.

"We didn't play as a team," Kiernan said of the five-game winless stretch. "Today, we played as a team and we were able to score a goal, which was also a problem for us. We just weren't finishing chances."

Jackson was one of two unbeaten teams remaining in the Shore Conference and its loss means Holmdel is now the last team standing with that distinction. The Jaguars owned a 38-4 goal differential entering Wednesday's game and their 38-5 mark is still the best in the Shore Conference.

Despite the loss, Jackson Memorial can still win the Class A South championship outright for the second straight season by beating Toms River North at home on Tuesday. The Jaguars can also win the title outright with a draw in that game, plus a Southern loss or draw against either Central or Toms River East next week.

Southern still has an outside chance to win a share of the Class A South championship, although the Rams cannot win the title outright. If Southern beats Central and Toms River East next week and Toms River North either beats or ties Jackson Memorial, Southern will win a share of A South - with Jackson Memorial in the event of a Jackson Memorial-Toms River North draw and with Toms River North if the Mariners win.

Southern is also one win or draw away from qualifying for the Shore Conference Tournament for the third straight season, with a home game against red-hot Lacey on Saturday night up next. If the Rams can't end Lacey's nine-game winning streak, they will have have to beat or tie Central - currently sporting a 1-10-1 record on the season and 2-24-1 over the past two seasons - on Tuesday.

"This was a quality win for us and now we have an opportunity to get into the Shore Conference Tournament and state tournament, which we would like to do," said Lockwood. "We're starting to play the way we want to play so the goal is to build on that and try to get into some high-level, pressure games."

 

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