JACKSON TWP. - The Toms River North boys soccer team qualified for the NJSIAA Tournament on a technicality. After a third straight eye-opening performance on the road, the Mariners are one win away from turning that opportunity into an improbable championship run.

Junior Ali Baish scored the game-winning goal with 1:38 left on the scoreboard clock and the Mariners - the No. 16 and last seed in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV bracket - knocked off No. 4 Jackson Memorial Tuesday, 2-1, to reach the South Jersey IV title game for the first time in five years.

"We just want to keep playing," Baish said. "We love each other. We love hanging out. We loving playing together. We just wanted it more and we want the whole thing."

Toms River North junior Ali Baish 12) and Jackson Memorial senior Tyler Howlett. Photo by Matt Manley)
Toms River North junior Ali Baish (12) and Jackson Memorial senior Tyler Howlett. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Toms River North will play for its first sectional championship since 2009 when it travels Friday to play No. 2 Egg Harbor - playing in its first final since 1996 after beating five-time defending champion Washington Township.

The last time Toms River North was the South Group IV final, Washington Township beat the Mariners, 2-1, for its first of five straight sectional titles.

The Mariners will try to be the first team to capitalize on Washington Township's downfall by completing a run that nearly died before it ever started. Toms River North ranked 17th in power points in the South Jersey Group IV standings but because the Mariners held a .500 winning percentage after 13 games (6-6-1), they had priority over sub-.500 Vineland.

"We had trouble playing a full 80 minutes during the year," Toms River North coach Joe Mahon said. "We would play a good half or a good 15 minutes and then we'd have a letdown.

We had a couple games right before the tournament against Jackson and Pinelands where I thought we played well for close to 80 minutes and I think they started to see what that looked like. Once the tournament started, we gave them a game plan, the bought into it and they have been getting after it for the full 80 minutes. And now, they are believing."

Since securing the spot in the tournament, Toms River North has more than shown it belongs. The Mariners opened the tournament by stunning top-seeded Clearview, 2-0, then defeated No. 8 Cherry Hill East, 2-0 - both on the road.

That set the stage for Tuesday against Shore Conference Class A South rival Jackson Memorial, which beat Toms River North, 3-2, on Oct. 21 in divisional play in Toms River.

With the game deadlocked at 1-1 and the clock winding inside of the final two minutes of regulation, Toms River North made its move on a counter-attack. Sophomore Mattia Assante blasted a ball up the field and Baish flicked it in the direction of the left corner before turning and making his run to the goal.

Meanwhile, junior Parker Nickelsen ran down the ball and beat one more defender to the edge of the 18-yard box on the left side. Nickelsen slid the ball across the mouth of the goal and it avoided the reach of sophomore goalkeeper Charlie Harrison. Once the ball made it to the front of the goal, Baish was there, sliding in for a point-blank, one-timed finish that proved to be the winner.

"I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I saw the ball coming to me," Baish said. "I wanted to flick it toward the corner, then turn and make that run. I knew Parker was going to beat his man and I just wanted to get there in time to get a cross and that's what I did."

From left: Jake Baurerband, Nick Gonzalez, Ryan Maguire and Chris Byrd celebrate Toms River Norths win. Photo by Matt Manley)
From left: Jake Baurerband, Nick Gonzalez, Ryan Maguire and Chris Byrd celebrate Toms River North's win. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The goal was Baish's first of the tournament and the assist Nickelsen's first. Baish assisted Toms River North's second goal on Friday against Cherry Hill East and Nickelsen scored a goal in each of the first two rounds of the tournament. Senior Jake Baurerband also had a goal in each of Toms River North's first two matches, the second of which came off Baish's assist.

"Back in 2009, when Toms River South went on that great run (in Group IV), they had one or two guys just get red-hot for them during the tournament," said Mahon, referencing the 2009 Toms River South team that won South Jersey Group IV, beat Toms River North in overtime in the Group IV semifinals, and then won the Group IV title by beating Clifton. "Dan Chrashewsky didn't have that many goals going into the tournament but he scored every game and was unstoppable for them. That's kind of what those three (Nickelsen, Baurerband and Baish) have going right now. They are all getting hot at the right time."

After an evenly-played, defensive first half, Jackson Memorial struck first. Junior Zack Rogacki unleashed a missile of a throw-in to the top of the six-yard box and senior Ben Schnaak flicked a header that skimmed off the head of a Toms River North defender and into the goal in the 47th minute.

Schnaak's goal was his fourth during an injury-shortened season and third between the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Tournaments.

Toms River North made defending Jackson Memorial's throw-ins a point of emphasis and were otherwise sharp in doing so despite facing a wave of long throws from Rogacki. Sophomore goalkeeper Dawson Kaniuk saved a back-heeled shot by Jackson Memorial senior Ron Bantang early in the second half and Assante stopped a header from reaching the goal until Kaniuk to corral it midway through the half.

"We were definitely worried about their throw-ins," Baish said. "We just had to be strong in the box, make sure we stayed with our man and kept enough guys back."

Still, the Mariners conceded on a throw-in and faced their first deficit of the tournament. That deficit lasted a mere 58 seconds thanks to a handball against Jackson Memorial inside the 18-yard box, which set up a penalty kick in the 48th. Senior Logan Mack took the kick and slotted it into the right corner of the goal for the equalizer.

"We keep grinding," Baish said. "That's been our motto all season and all tournament. If we score, we keep going. If they score, we keep going."

While Jackson Memorial nearly took the lead on a throw-in, Baish almost gave his team the lead in the 70th when he beat his man along the end-line on the left side. Without much of an angle to hit his target, he ripped a shot that Harrison saved by knocking out of bounds for a corner kick.

Toms River North opened its season with a wild, 5-4, overtime win over eventual Shore Conference Tournament champion Freehold Township and went on to endure an up-and-down season leading up to the NJSIAA Tournament. The Mariners start only three seniors and went through the usual growing pains typically associated with a team short on age, size and experience.

All-the-while, however, the Toms River North players wanted to keep playing and keep building toward a finished, championship product with so many players due back next season.

As it turns out, the Mariners won't have to wait until next year.

"They love coming to practice every day," Mahon said. "They love being coached and the handful of seniors we have, they don't want this to end and the younger guys don't want it to end for them. They are just loving this, especially those bus rides home after a win. Hopefully we can get won more of those."


Box Score

Toms River North 2, Jackson Memorial 1

TR North (11-7-1)022
Jackson Mem. (15-3-2)011

Goals (Assists): (TRN) Logan Mack (PK) 48', Ali Baish (Parker Nickelsen) 79'; (JM) Ben Schnaak (Zack Rogacki) 47'
Shots: Toms River North, 7-6
Saves: (TRN) Dawson Kaniuk 3; (JM) Charlie Harrison 3


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