Manalapan boys soccer coach John Natoli has taught a lot of players how to win high school soccer games over his 22 seasons leading the Braves, but it was a few seasons of lean win totals that taught Natoli how to better enjoy his team’s success.

“I’ve mellowed a lot over the last couple years, as I’m sure you’ve noticed,” Natoli said after winning his third Shore Conference Tournament championship with Manalapan in November. “I’ve learned to just enjoy teaching the game and being around the players.”

Manalapan after winning the Shore Conference Tournament. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

Natoli’s teams failed to post a winning record in three of the past four seasons coming into 2013, but this year was a return to glory for the Braves, a turnaround worthy of the 2013 Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year for the longtime Manalapan coach.

“I knew we had a chance to be pretty good this year and our goal from day one was to compete for the (Class A North) title,” Natoli said. “Obviously, you’d like to be in the running for Shore Conference and state tournament, and our philosophy is always to win the division and then you’ll have a chance to compete for those other things. We played a lot of young players last year and those guys all came back with more experience and the talent showed.”

Following an NJSIAA Group IV co-title in 2007, the Braves were hardly a doormat over the next four seasons. They finished with a .500 record in 2009, an 11-9 mark in 2010, and losing records in 2011 and 2012, bottoming out last year with a 5-10-3 record. While that is hardly a disastrous four-year stretch in a tough Class A North division, it was a big drop-off for a program that had competed for multiple championships throughout the late 1990s and early and late 2000s.

With only two starters graduating from last year’s team, the Braves came back with plenty of experience, but had a group that had not proven it could win. Manalapan quickly put any reservation about its ability by winning its first five games and storming out to a 9-1 record in the first 10 games of the season.

Natoli’s experience came in handy on two occasions, the first coming during a two-game stretch in mid-October in which the Braves failed to win consecutive games for the only time during the season. They tied Freehold Township 0-0 on Oct. 10 and lost the Howell, 2-1 on Oct. 15. The day after the Howell loss, the Braves went down 1-0 to Middletown North before rallying for a 2-1 overtime victory. The come-from-behind win over a 4-11-1 team ignited a 10-game winning streak that did not end until the Central Jersey Group IV semifinals.

“When you have some success, sometimes you forget what got you to that point and I think that’s what happened with us,” Natoli said after a win over Colts Neck on Oct. 18. “The guys learned that if they don’t come out and give their best effort, they can get beat.”

Manalapan’s biggest come-from-behind win came in the Shore Conference Tournament final against Rumson-Fair Haven. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first 10 minutes, but Natoli’s team was prepared for the long haul and ultimately rallied for a 2-1 win for the program’s first SCT title in seven years.

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“Coaching in (the SCT final) before probably helped in preparing the guys,” Natoli said. “It always helps to be able to speak from experience and I can tell the guys what to expect in terms of the field and the intensity of the game and I think they responded well to that.”