Boys Soccer – Toms River South Upends Mainland to Return to Group III Final
TOMS RIVER - They didn't necessarily know how they would get there, but the returning members of the Toms River South boys soccer team resolved from the first day of the offseason following 2015, they would find a way to get back to the NJSIAA Group III championship game.
Finding ways to win is exactly what Toms River South has cultivated as its program staple over the past decade and Tuesday in the NJSIAA Group III semifinals against a Mainland team enjoying its best season in program history, the Indians again shook off early adversity and found a way to come out on top.
Senior defender Dylan Danelson and freshman midfielder Jack Seitz scored goals 2:12 apart from one another during the early part of the second half and the Indians rallied for a 2-1 win over the Mustangs to advance to the Group III championship game for the second consecutive season and third time in the last eight.
"A week after we lost (in the Group III final) last year, they came to me and said, 'We're going back," Toms River South coach Ed Leibe said of his players. "That's our goal. We're winning (Class) A South, we're winning another sectional final and we're going to the finals. We have to.'"
"Our main goal this season was to get back (to the final)," senior captain Tyler Egnatuk said. "Everybody's talented on the team. We don't rely on one person to score goals and, as you can see, we had a defender and a freshman scoring goals for us today. It's pretty impressive."
Toms River South fell into an early 1-0 hole when Victor Figueroa finished off a free kick by Keegan Ford in the fourth minute. Toms River South methodically won control of play back, but could not score before reaching halftime with the one-goal deficit still hanging over its head.
"We've been so fortunate with our history and they buy into all that," said Leibe, referring to the 2009 Group IV title run in which Toms River South won five of its sixth games with the game-winning goal coming in the 74th minute or later. "They're just like, 'We're not losing. We're not losing this game.' We had a great last 20 minutes of the first half and it gave us the momentum going into the second half."
The Indians continued to mount pressure on Mainland's end of the field to open the second half and broke through by earning a throw-in on the right side. Senior Chris Kluxen launched the ball into the box and it ended up at the feet of Danelson, who did not square the ball up on his first touch, but struck a clean, left-footed shot into the goal from six yards away.
"His throw-in is like a corner kick," Danelson said of Kluxen. "We know to treat every ball he throws as a corner kick and I was just ready for it when it happened to come to me."
Tuesday marked the first time in weeks that Danelson played his usual left outside fullback spot because of a broken bone in his left foot that sidelined him during that stretch. He has worked his way back into the fold with spurts of playing time around the field and on Tuesday, it was - fittingly enough - his healed left foot that produced the game-tying goal in the 49th minute.
"When I first found out my foot was broken, I was heartbroken, but I tried to keep a good attitude," Danelson said. "I was there for my teammates, I stayed positive and I just kept reminding myself that I was going to be back for states. When I did get back, I wanted to make the most of it and to be able to step up in a moment like that, as a senior, for my first goal of the season - unbelievable feeling."
"Danelson coming back, how about Danelson?," Leibe said. "Holy mackerel. We use him sparingly through the tournament, didn't the first couple games. We get him back in for the final game and he scores a goal. It's a dream come true."
A little more than two minutes later, the Indians earned another throw and Kluxen once again set up a score. This time, a Mainland defender flicked a header toward the goal and Seitz settled it before slamming it past Mustangs goalkeeper Matt Stelletano with 28:51 left.
"Part of our halftime talk was if we get the ball down in their end and we can try to create some opportunities for a throw-in and just keep them pinned in on their third of the field, then we'll make something happen," Kluxen said. "I've been playing with most of these guys my whole life and the throw-in has been something I've always been able to do. Any of my guys will get on that and they're ready for it."
Mainland had one more golden opportunity to tie the game, but Toms River South goalkeeper Dom Pizzi turned away a point-blank shot from the middle of the goal mouth off a throw-in with a diving stop in the 71st minute.
"That's the kind of moment when you get that feeling in your guy like, 'Oh no, they're about to score,'" Egnatuk said. "Then Dom comes up big with a save like he has all season."
The Mustangs' last chance ended with a header that sailed comfortably wide of the left post with 30 seconds remaining and after that final half-minute, the Indians celebrated another trip to a Group III championship.
Toms River South will play unbeaten Ramapo - 1-0 winners over Hopewell Valley in overtime - in the Group III championship Sunday at Kean University at 3 p.m. Toms River South is coming off a 4-0 loss to Mendham in last year's Group III final and will try to finish the job this year by handing Ramapo its first loss and winning the program's first overall state title since winning Group IV in 2009.
Toms River South went into that game with a red-hot goal scorer in Cameron Geerinck and although no one player has carried the load as Geerick did with this seven goals in six games, the Indians think they might even be better off with a balanced attack.
"I feel like last year, everybody knew Cameron was our main goal-scorer, whereas this year it's undecided," Egnatuk said. "Dylan (Parks) is our main scorer, but everybody is scorer, so it's going to be hard for them to defend us when we have such a wide variety of people scoring goals."
"We took a big loss in the state final last season and I've played this whole season to get back there," Kluxen said. "I need to get back there. I couldn't be more ready or more excited."
Toms River South 2, Mainland 1
|TR South (17-3-2)||0||2||2|
Goals (Assists): Victor Figueroa (Keegan Ford) 4'; (TRS) Dylan Danelson (Chris Kluxen) 49', Jack Seitz (Chris Kluxen) 52'
Shots: Toms River South, 12-7
Saves: (M) Matt Stelletano 6; (TRS) Dom Pizzi 3