TOMS RIVER - As dominant as the Colts Neck girls soccer team played in the first half of its NJSIAA Group III semifinal Tuesday against Toms River South, the Cougars knew from first-hand experience that a one-goal lead was a risky proposition against the Indians.

After playing what coach Doug Phillips called the best half his unbeaten team had played all season, the Cougars quickly added a second goal and finished off an impressive 2-0 victory over Toms River South at Toms River North High School to advance to the Group III final for the second straight year.

Colts Neck will once again face four-time defending group champion Northern Highlands, which won its fourth straight title by beating Colts Neck, 4-0, in last year's championship game.

"There are a lot of games we had to go through to get here," said Colts Neck junior Frankie Tagliaferri, who scored the first Cougars goal and assisted the second. "This was the final destination we wanted to get to and we're finally here, so we're going to go into it with a lot of heart and energy and we're going to do our best."

Although Colts Neck dominated the first half in both possession and shot attempts, the Cougars did not break the scoreless deadlock until the 37th minute. Tagliaferri beat the defense going to goal on the left side and laid the ball off for sophomore Kayla Lee. Lee hit the ball off a defender and it bounced right to Tagliaferri, who ripped a 10-yard strike into the upper left of the net to complete what turned out to be an effective give-and-go with Lee.

Despite a one-goal lead and a 9-0 advantage in shots at the half, the Cougars were not completely safe considering they were in firm control the last time the two teams met in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals, only for Indians freshman Aliya Canfield to score the equalizer in the second half to send the game to overtime.

"We talked about the number of chances and the number of times we got behind the defense and didn't capitalize in that first game," Phillips said. "Their defense played good, their keeper played good, so we said for 80 minutes, we just have to keep generating chances and be solid in the back. We knew they were going to mount a charge on us and we held them off."

With that experience in mind, the Cougars stormed out of the halftime huddle and scored just 3:13 into the half. Tagliaferri drew a foul 10 yards outside the edge of the 18-yard box on the left side and served a ball to the near post. Senior Amanda Visco beat a defender to the ball and headed it in to give Colts Neck a 2-0 cushion.

"That second goal was a thing of beauty," Phillips said. "The first one was great too, but the second one especially. A great ball by Frankie and a Amanda is unbelievable in the air."

"It's a huge plus because Amanda and I play together in high school and on (the Player Development Academy) so we play great combinations with each other, especially on direct kicks and crosses. I always put my hand up and just (wave) and she starts."

The Cougars nearly got their second goal a minute earlier when senior Ali Russo beat a defender around the corner on the left side and slid a pass to a wide-open Lee, who skipped a bending shot just wide of the far left post.

Senior Bridgette King nearly added a third when she outran the Indians defense to a through ball and drew out Toms River South keeper Taylor Dean. He shot, however, hit the far left post after Dean stuck her leg out and redirected it just off frame.

Colts Neck did not manage to score any more goals, but they were not necessary with the Cougars holding Toms River South without a shot over the course of the entire game.

The win on Tuesday sets up a clash of unbeaten teams, with Northern Highlands coming off its first tie of the season Tuesday in a scoreless game against West Morris that required eight rounds of penalty kicks to settle before the Highlanders eventually advanced by a 6-5 margin.

Northern Highlands graduated only one senior starter from last year's state championship team, but that was current University of Virginia freshman Hana Kerner, who scored all four Highlanders goals in the championship game. In addition to bringing back a more experienced team in its own right, Colts Neck hopes to benefit from the graduation of Kerner, who made a tough matchup nearly impossible with her goal-scorer ability.

"We looked at the game last year and we kind of thought Hana Kerner was the difference-maker," Phillips said. "I think if you took her off the field, yeah, position-by-position they were better than us, but we stayed with them a little bit and Kerner was just unbelievable."

"She was a very special player last year, but overall, I thought they were a great team," Tagliaferri said. "They knew how to possess the ball and they were very soccer smart. They were a very good team and I think this year, I think we're also a great team. We're both special teams and we both have experience, so it should be a great game."

Another variable in the game that could favor Colts Neck, according to Phillips, is that the Cougars will be playing with less pressure on Saturday than they have played with all season.

"Since August 15, the pressure's been on us to get back to this group final and at least have a go at (Northern Highlands)," Phillips said. "We didn't want anybody to take that away from us, so I think they were really up for tonight.

"It will be nice to play a game this year where we're not expected to win and are carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders."

Box Score

Colts Neck 2, Toms River South 0

1 2 F
Toms River South (17-6) 0 0 0
Colts Neck (23-0-1) 1 1 2

Goals (Assists): (CN) Frankie Tagliaferri (Kayla Lee) 37’, Amanda Visco (Frankie Tagliaferri) 44’
Shots: Colts Neck, 16-0
Saves: (TRS) Taylor Dean 7; (CN) Lauren Feaster 0