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Even before the Toms River North girls soccer team won its first Shore Conference Tournament championship last season, first-year head coach and former assistant Tom Miller would implore his players each year to take the trip to Memorial Field in Neptune just to observe the atmosphere of the final two rounds of the tournament, which the Mariners also never reached until last year.

Shannon Groffie scored two goals and assisted another in Toms River North's 3-0 win over previously unbeaten Toms River South on Monday night. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“We wanted them to get a taste of it so maybe they would find some motivation,” Miller said. “They didn’t seem to have much interest in watching, but once they got a chance to play, they realized what it was all about.”

Since enduring a rough start to the season and two painful losses to crosstown rival Toms River South during the past calendar year, the Mariners have played like a team that badly wants another taste of the championship game.

Toms River North shut out previously unbeaten Toms River South, 3-0, on Monday night to win its eighth straight game since a 1-2 start to the season, a win that both reasserts the Mariners as a Shore Conference Tournament favorite and exorcises some demons for which Toms River South is mainly responsible.

“It doesn’t matter what year it is or what the records are, it’s always going to be competitive when we play South,” said senior Shannon Groffie, who had two goals and an assist in Monday’s win over the Indians. “Most of us play with the girls on their team and we know each other well, so that makes for a battle when we play against each other."

After winning the SCT last year and then waiting out the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Toms River North suffered a stunning upset to Toms River South in the first round of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Tournament. The win propelled the Indians to a 10-0 start to this season, which included a 3-2 overtime win over the Mariners on Sept. 17.

Toms River North dropped a second straight game to Jackson Memorial on Sept. 19 to fall to 1-2, despite the fact that the Mariners returned all but two starters from the championship 2012 team.

“I think that start was kind of a wake-up call for the girls,” said Miller, who succeeded six-year girls coach and longtime boys coach Jerry Klimek after serving as a coach in the program for seven seasons. “The two losses to South were two of the more emotional losses a team can go through, so it might have taken them some time to start believing in what we were doing and remembering all the hard work it took to get to where we were last year.”

“It’s much different playing with that bull's-eye on your back,” Groffie said. “When you win the Shore Conference (Tournament), teams get pumped up to play against you, and we’ve had to get used to that.”

One of the returnees missed the first four games of the season. Senior forward and 2012 leading goal-scorer Erika Pita sat out as a precaution due to a heart condition, according to Miller, and returned for a 2-0 win over Brick Memorial on Sept. 25.

“It was tough not having Erika just because we were all just hoping she was going to be okay and be able to get back,” Groffie said. “Obviously, she’s a great player and a great teammate, so not having her probably contributed to the bad start. Ever since she came back though, we haven't lost.”

That win against the Mustangs was the second during the current right-game streak and over those eight games, Toms River North has outscored its opponents 28-1, with the lone goal coming in a 4-1 win over Jackson Memorial on Wednesday.

While the Mariners had clearly hit their stride prior to Monday’s rivalry match, the winning streak was incomplete without conquering the team that ended their dream 2012 season and ignited a potential dream season of its own with a thrilling overtime win over the defending SCT champs en route to a 10-0 start.

“It felt like it took forever to get to this game with the rainouts and the hype, but it finally got here and we were ready,” Groffie said. “We had two really hard-fought games against them and both times, they were the ones that found a way to win. Tonight, we were able to finish and that was the difference.”

Monday’s statistics suggest a close game: an 11-10 advantage in shots and 6-4 edge in shots on goal for Toms River North. The difference, however, was the duo of Groffie and Pita, who combined for all of the Mariners scoring. Groffie set Pita up for the first goal of the game in the 25th minute with a through-ball that put Pita in position for her finish to the lower right of the net.

Groffie then did the work herself by carrying the ball through the defense from near midfield and chipped an eight-yard shot over Toms River South freshman goalkeeper Taylor Dean for a 2-0 lead in the 30th. Groffie capped the scoring in the 55th by taking a pass from Pita, turned past a defender and finished to the lower left of the goal to cap the scoring.

[onescreen item="5149285"]“We’ve all played together for so long and we always know what to expect, especially with me and Erika,” Groffie said. “We both have a good feel for where the other is going to be, which is what happened on the goals tonight.”

The Toms River North defense contained Toms River South’s dangerous combination of Madison Kenny and Taylor Troutman to help goalkeeper Alyssa Dell’Acqua record her seventh shutout of the season. Troutman hit the right post with a shot in the 32nd minute that nearly cut a 2-0 deficit in half, but Dell’Acqua and the defense did not allow anything close the rest of the way.

The Mariners played the second half without senior midfielder Sami Santos, who injured her left ankle late in the first half and did not return after walking off the field on her own power.

“They were dangerous today, but collectively, we were very aware of those two in particular,” Miller said. “Even with the attention we gave them, Troutman still hit the post once, so you saw how dangerous they can be.”

Toms River South still has the inside track to win the division if it can win its final four division games, which means Toms River North is not likely to do any better than No. 3 in the SCT seeding on Monday if Freehold Borough also remains unbeaten. Even without the top seed, the Mariners have put the rest of the conference on notice that they still have what it takes to win a second title after waiting so many years to capture the first.

“We lost some really good senior players from last year’s team, but most of us played in those two games at Neptune,” Groffie said. “We’ve already done it before so we know we’re good enough to do it again, especially if we can keep playing the way we did tonight.”

Box Score

Toms River North 3, Toms River South 0

1

2

F

Toms River South (10-1-0, 9-1-0)

0

0

0

Toms River North (9-2-0, 8-2-0)

2

1

3

Goals (Assists): (TRN) Pita (Groffie) 25’, Groffie 30’, Groffie (Pita) 56’
Shots: Toms River North, 11-10
Saves: (TRS) Dean 3; (TRN) Dell’Acqua 4