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Joe Mahon always prefers to play the role of underdog come tournament time and the Toms River North boys soccer team couldn’t be more of an underdog than it was at the start of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Playoffs.

The Mariners were the No. 16 seed in the section and lucky to even be that – they were 18th in power points among teams in the sectional standings but because they had a .500 winning percentage after 13 games (6-6-1), they were guaranteed a spot in the field.

With the longest of odds, the Toms River North players weren’t thinking about making history. They just wanted to keep playing together.

What was one first-round loss away from a forgettable season turned into one of the most memorable tournament runs in the history of the Shore Conference and perhaps even throughout the state.

In his 10th season as the head coach, Mahon led his 16th-seeded Mariners to their first NJSIAA sectional title in 10 years and surged to the front of the pack as the 2019 Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year.

Toms River North coach Joe Mahon. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"They give you memories that last our lifetime,” Mahon said shortly after his team’s season ended in a 2-1 loss to Hunterdon Central in the Group IV semifinal. “I'm so happy that they have those memories with their teammates, with their families, younger brothers and sisters. It's what we're trying to build in the program - being a family and keeping those memories so when they come back, it's always there.”

The last time Toms River North was in a sectional final prior to this November was in 2014. The Mariners lost to Washington Township, 1-0, and the Minutemen went on to win the next four South Jersey Group IV championships. Their reign ended with a loss to Egg Harbor in the sectional semifinal, which meant a new champion would finally be crowned.

It turned out to be the unlikeliest of successors to the throne.

Once in the field, Toms River North drew top-seeded Clearview in the opening round and sent shockwaves through South Jersey when it knocked off one of the bracket favorites, 2-0, on goals by senior Jake Baurerband and junior Parker Nickelsen.

Baurerband and Nickelsen came through again in the following round, scoring a goal apiece in a 2-0 win at No. 8 Cherry Hill East to send the Mariners into the sectional semifinal round.

Despite going through a No. 1 seed in round one, Toms River North’s quest to keep its season going was about to get much tougher in the final two rounds now that the championship was just over the horizon for the final four teams. In the semifinals, Toms River North made a trip to fourth-seeded Jackson Memorial, which had beaten the Mariners, 3-2, in Toms River two weeks earlier.

Although Toms River North lost to the Jaguars in the Class A South finale for both teams, the Mariners gained confidence by grabbing a 2-1 second-half lead before the Jaguars rallied to win.

Two weeks later, it was the Mariners who would rally. Jackson Memorial handed Toms River North its first deficit of the tournament early in the second half but within a minute, the Mariners had their equalizer when senior Logan Mack converted a penalty kick.

The game pushed into the final two minutes with the score still tied and it was once again Nickelsen that was in the middle of a deciding play. The junior beat his man around the corner on the left side and centered the ball to the front of the goal, where junior Ali Baish completed the sliding finish for the game-winning goal with 1:38 left on the clock.

After vanquishing its division rival to reach its first sectional final in five years, Toms River North had one more magic moment left. For the fourth straight game, Nickelsen came up with a huge play to get his team a goal, this time ripping the game-winning, golden goal from 20 yards out to land the Mariners a stunning, 2-1, overtime victory over Egg Harbor and the program’s first sectional championship since 2009.

Photo provided by Toms River North soccer.

Mack scored the equalizer in that game after Egg Harbor grabbed the 1-0 lead in the first half.

"I told the kids, 'You are part of history now," Mahon said. "You beat the one, the two, the four and the eight seed - all on the road - to win a sectional championship as a 16 seed. I don't think that's been done and if it has, it's rare. It's a brotherhood that they will be a part of forever. In 20 years, they will look back and remember this. It's a crazy, crazy story and they will take it with them wherever they go."

Toms River North’s stunning run came to an end in the Group IV semifinal against Hunterdon Central, but not before the Mariners put a scare into the perennial Group IV power. Baish scored in the seventh minute to stake Toms River North to a 1-0 lead, but the Red Devils got the equalizer before halftime and took the lead early in the second half before holding on to advance to the Group IV final.

The 2019 season started with Toms River North surprising eventual Shore Conference Tournament champion Freehold Township in a 5-4, overtime classic and ended with the Mariners reminding the state how much they thrive in the spotlight game – especially as the longshot.

Toms River North coach Joe Mahon speaks with his players after their 2-1 loss to Hunterdon Central. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Mahon has been the head coach at Toms River North since 2010, when he took over the program following the passing of his predecessor and coaching mentor, Dave Mitchell. Mahon coached on Mitchell’s staff in 2009, when the Mariners won the Central Jersey Group IV championship as the No. 1 seed in the section and lost to Toms River South in a memorable, 4-3, overtime classic in the Group IV final.

"I owe Dave a lot for giving me a shot as an assistant," said Mahon, who was previously the head coach at Pinelands. "I immediately thought about all the players who were in the program these last ten years and even going back farther than that. Guys have been reaching out all week and I have just been telling them, 'You are a part of this.' This is everybody's championship - everyone who wore the jersey and was part of the teams that came so close to winning in 2014 and went deep into the Shore Conference Tournaments. They were all important in getting the guys here today."

Toms River South went on to win the Group IV championship and a month after the conclusion of the season, Mitchell lost his battle with cancer.

On the 10-year anniversary of Mitchell’s passing, Mahon was glad his program gave the school something to celebrate, as well as a chance to remember the man who led the Mariners to their last title.

"I thought about Dave a lot today," Mahon said after his team had just clinched the South Jersey Group IV crown. "It's been ten years since that sectional championship and with everything that's happened during this run, maybe this was meant to be."

 

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