At the start of the season, the buzz surrounding the Holmdel boys soccer team stemmed from the return of senior forward Justin McStay and the addition of two other standouts from the academy ranks – seniors Cyrus Darvish and Matt Leon.

While all three made significant impacts during the 2017 season, the headliner was the junior who returned from 2016.

In his second varsity season, Anthony Arena took a giant leap from up-and-coming star to unstoppable force. He was at the heart of Holmdel’s best season in program history and for his efforts, he is the Shore Sports Network Boys Soccer Player of the Year for 2017.

Holmdel junior Anthony Arena. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

During his junior season for the Hornets, Arena led the entire Shore Conference in both goals and assists, racking up 35 scores and 25 helpers. Strangely enough, Arena opened his season without scoring a goal in a win over Matawan but took off after that with hat tricks in three of Holmdel’s next four games. For the season Arena scored at least three goals in a game six times, including twice during the postseason tournaments.

Speaking of the postseason tournaments, Arena made his mark over the last month of a season with a stretch that is almost hard to comprehend. In 10 games between the NJSIAA and Shore Conference Tournaments, Arena amassed 13 goals and seven assists, including at least one goal or assist in each of the 10 matches. Only 19 players in the entire Shore Conference scored as many goals during the season as Arena scored during the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Group II Tournaments and his 33 postseason points would have ranked 21st in the Shore as a season-long total.

Arena’s postseason scoring explosion reaches its zenith in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game against Ocean, which came after Arena had already compiled a respectable two goals and three assists over Holmdel’s first three SCT wins over Shore Regional (two assists), Howell (two goals) and Jackson Memorial (one assist).

After his team fell behind, 1-0, in the opening minutes, Arena found the scoring touch to get the Hornets going and did not lose it. He scored the equalizer in the 16th minute and the go-ahead goal with 1:18 left until halftime to put Holmdel in the lead to stay.

Although Arena did enough scoring to win the game in the first half, he did not stop there. He scored three more goals in the second half to give him five in a stretch of 34:48 on the clock. In those 35 minutes, Arena scored more goals than any player has scored in a Shore Conference final during the 34-year history of the tournament.

Holmdel junior Anthony Arena following his five-goal SCT final. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

Arena’s five-goal performance keyed a 7-1 Holmdel win over Ocean to capture the program’s first ever Shore Conference Tournament championship, but the Hornets still had unfinished business in the Group II Playoffs. Two years earlier, Holmdel was within 2:30 of winning the Group II title, only to concede two goals to Garfield in the final 2:30 to lose, 2-1. Arena did not play on that team as a freshman, but did taste defeat last year when No. 13 seed Rumson-Fair Haven – a team Holmdel beat twice during the 2016 regular-season – dealt the Hornets a 3-0 defeat in the Central Jersey Group II semifinals.

This year, the sectional semifinals again featured a scare against a 13th-seeded division rival. Matawan – which Holmdel beat twice by a combined score of 8-0 in two regular-season games – scored an equalizer on a rainy afternoon in Holmdel and pushed the game to a shootout. The Hornets, however, survived in penalty kicks, with Arena assisting the Holmdel goal and converting a kick.

Once the Hornets got past the challenge from Matawan, they found their A game behind Arena. In a 6-0 win over Monmouth in the sectional final, Arena scored three goals, assisted one and played a free kick that turned into an own goal.

Holmdel faced adversity one more time in a showdown with fellow Group II power Delran in the Group II semifinals, in which the Bears grabbed a 1-0 lead during a blitzkrieg in the first five minutes. From there, however, Holmdel settled in and Arena carried his team home by helping out with three goals in the span of 6:03 between the end of the first half and beginning of the second. He played in a cross that led to Mark McStay’s equalizer just before halftime and served the corner kick that led to Matt Leon’s goal to cap the scoring – book-ending his own goal to give Holmdel the lead in the 43rd minute.

Holmdel junior Anthony Arena. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Arena capped his season with a relatively quiet Group II final by his standards, but he still managed an assists in Holmdel’s 4-1 win over Dover that gave the Hornets their 22nd win and second overall group championship. Both feats have only been done once at Holmdel, both by the 2010 team that won Group III. While that team matched the 2017 squad in win total and with a state championship, those Hornets bowed out of the Shore Conference Tournament in the quarterfinals.

With one more year of high school left, Arena has a chance to be the second player in three years to win a second straight SSN Player of the Year. Christian Brothers Academy midfielder and current Bucknell freshman Matt Thorsheim won the award in the 2015 and 2016 and Arena will look to join him as the only players to win the award in consecutive years while also leading Holmdel back to SCT and state tournament championships.