Across all sports on all levels, the coach of the year award is often used to recognize the coach of a team that exceeded expectations - often times a team that entered the season with expectations well below the level of success it ended up reaching.

Every now and again, though, the award is best suited for a coach who is handed a team with colossal expectations and delivers on them.

That was the story of John Nacarlo and his Holmdel boys soccer team in 2017, which will go down as the year Holmdel had its best team in the program’s history to date. This year was a “multiple-championships-or-bust” of season, and after his team claimed every championship in front of them and finished No. 4 in the state according to, Nacarlo is the Shore Sports Network Boys Soccer Coach of the Year.

Holmdel coach John Nacarlo. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The Hornets were set to return plenty of talent from a young, inconsistent team in 2016 – one that had to scratch and claw to make the Shore Conference Tournament, but still won two games in both the SCT and NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II Tournaments. This year’s team returned with that postseason experience to go with plenty of talent that was making the jump from sophomore to junior year.

On top of the talent returning from 2016, Holmdel added three seniors from the academy ranks – one of whom had already made a significant impact at the high school level. Justin McStay elected to play for academy soccer during his junior year of high school after leading Holmdel to the Group II championship game as a sophomore, but he made good on his promise to return as a senior. He also brought along with him teammates Cyrus Darvish and Matt Leon, who quickly became impact starters this year.

Consistency eluded Nacarlo and Holmdel in 2016, but this year’s team had no such problem. The Hornets got off to a fast start in Shore Conference Class A Central divisional play and never let up, outscoring A Central opponents 66-7 in 12 division games. Holmdel won just one game by a one-goal margin during the year – a 2-1 road win over Raritan.

Holmdel was scheduled to play a key non-divisional match against a Monroe team that finished among the top 20 teams in the state, but the Hornets lost that game when Holmdel junior lacrosse player Jack Dowd died suddenly on the day prior to the game while competing at a lacrosse tournament. The game was cancelled and the Hornets soccer team came back with heavy hearts two days later to honor their fallen classmate with pregame tribute and win over Rumson.

McStay, for his part, changed his jersey number from Dowd’s lacrosse No. 9 to No. 6 as a way of honoring him.

Without the Monroe game, Holmdel needed a challenge outside of A Central before the tournament season started and the Hornets picked up a road game against Pingry. The Big Blue held Holmdel in check in a 1-0 win that forced Nacarlo to re-evaluate his formation and approach heading into the Shore Conference Tournament and made the players aware that they could indeed be beaten by a quality opponent.

Anthony Arena (right) and Mark McStay (left) douse Holmdel coach John Nacarlo with a Gatorade bath. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

After swallowing the loss to Pingry, Nacarlo shook up his midfield and back line. He moved senior Mikey Neff from outside midfield to outside fullback and moved Leon into the starting lineup fulltime in Neff’s place. He also moved sophomore center fullback Mark Walier to outside back and started junior Jack Murray alongside junior Torre Avitabile in the middle of the back line. Murray was the starting goalkeeper as a freshman in 2015 and again last year, but he was sharing time with senior Matt Lionette and the new formation was a chance for him and Lionette to both start and make the most impact.

The realignment also shifted senior Nick Guga to the bench and the senior bought in while giving Holmdel another valuable player to spell the starters in either the midfielder or on the back line. Guga was one of several Holmdel players who provided a spark off the bench, including junior Mark McStay, sophomore Eric Hinds and Jack Giamanco and senior Cole Brown.

With the new lineup, Holmdel took off heading into the Shore Conference Tournament and overwhelmed all challengers to win its first ever conference tournament. During the four-game run to the title, the Hornets outscored their opponents 19-1 and even when the one goal they conceded stuck them in a 1-0 hole against Ocean in the championship game, they responded with seven unanswered.

Holmdel was almost as dominant in the state tournament, although the Hornets faced their playoff scare against A Central rival Matawan – a team that had gone 4-0-1 vs. Holmdel in the last five meetings between the teams heading into the 2017 season – in the sectional semifinals. Holmdel allowed the equalizer in the second half and could not come up with a golden goal in overtime, meaning the Hornets would have to advance via penalty kicks on a rainy afternoon against a quality goalkeeper in Matawan senior Chris Mallozzi. Justin McStay missed his kick, but Lionette picked him up with two saves to put secure the shootout win over a game Matawan side.

Photo by Paula Lopez

Just like the Pingry loss, the Matawan scare served as a wake-up call for the Hornets, who outscored the opposition 13-2 over the final three games. That stretch included a 6-0 sectional final win over Monmouth, a 3-1 win over perennial Group II power Delran, and a 4-1 win over Dover in the Group II final. Delran finished the season No. 7 in the state, while Dover finished No. 18 with its only losses coming to three teams that won their respective group titles – Delbarton (Non-Public A), Morris Catholic (Non-Public B) and Holmdel.

During its memorable 2017 season, Holmdel tied a school record for wins with 22, finishing 22-1-1. That matched the 2010 team that went 22-1 and won the Group III championship. Although that team won Group III and boasted former Maryland star and current New York Red Bulls midfielder Dan Metzger, that team lost in the quarterfinal round of the Shore Conference Tournament. This year’s team also sported an overwhelming goal differential of 122-14, while the 2010 squad outscored opponents 83-16.

In his 15 seasons, Nacarlo has led Holmdel to two group championships, five group final appearances, six sectional titles, three Shore Conference Tournament title game appearances and four SCT final four appearances. Prior to him taking over the program, Holmdel had never won a sectional championship or been to the SCT semifinals.

The Hornets will have a chance to add to their trophy case next year, when they could return up to six starters and three key bench players. Among that group is SSN Player of the Year Anthony Arena, who will be among the top returning players in the state.