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Coming off six NJSIAA Tournament shutouts and a penalty-kick defeat in the NJSIAA Group III championship game, the Wall boys soccer team entered the 2020 season a motivated team with one primary goal in mind.

Shave their head coach’s head.

During the course of the spring and summer, like so many people shut out of getting haircuts with barber shops and salons closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Crimson Knights coach Garry Linstra grew attached to his long hair. Linstra wasn’t quite ready to cut it but his players made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: if they could win their Shore Conference Class B North division with a perfect 14-0 record, they could then fire up the electric clippers and chop off his mane.

The Wall players indeed earned the right to cut their coaches’ hair and once they gave him a fresh trim (cleaned up by Linstra’s wife, according to the coach), they then took the challenge a step further. There were no more heads to shave, only history to be made.

One year after coming a round of penalty kicks away from an overall state title, this year’s Wall squad became the first ever in the history of the program to finish a season without a loss or tie, going 17-0 while winning the Class B North title, the NJSIAA Central Jersey East Group III South sectional championship and finishing No. 2 in the final Shore Sports Network Top 10.

Photo by Matt Manley
Garry Linstra (back row, middle, with mask, buzz cut) led Wall to a 17-0 mark in 2020. (Photo by Matt Manley)

For leading his team to a 17-0 record and division and sectional titles – all with a completely new back four and goalkeeper – Linstra is the 2020 Shore Sports Network Boys Soccer Coach of the Year.

"I have been doing this 19 years and there is always a hiccup game," Linstra said after completing the unbeaten campaign. "You always tell the kids one game at a time and this was really one game at a time because you don't know when that call is going to come telling you you're shut down. So it was one game at a time, one half at a time and the boys showed a great ability to grind and find ways to win throughout the year."

Last season, the Crimson Knights learned the hard way that a team could play a perfect postseason – at least on one side of the field – and still come up short of winning an overall state championship. Wall did not allow a goal in any of its six NJSIAA Group III Playoff games, but could not score in the championship game vs. Millburn and lost a penalty shootout that decided the championship.

All four starters on that 2019 defense graduated and starting goalkeeper Sebastian Campanile sustained an offseason hip injury that kept him out for his entire senior season this past fall. Instead of changing his team's approach to suit a more attack-oriented roster, Linstra plugged in a new group in front of junior and first year-starter Joe Gisoldi in goal and let them evolve once again into one of the Shore’s top back lines.

At 0.59 goals allowed per game (10 in 17 matches), Wall was tied with Colts Neck for the third-best goals-against per-game total at the Shore, with just Christian Brothers Academy (four goals in 14 games, 0.29 per game) and Holmdel (eight in 14, 0.57) performing better.

Speaking of Colts Neck, no opponent brought out the best in Wall like its talented Class B North counterpart. Entering a two-game series between the teams during the final week of the regular season, Colts Neck was the Shore’s best team by record (12-0) and goal differential (62-5). Wall responded by sweeping the week with two victories by a 2-1 margin.

After outplaying Colts Neck in the second half of the first game in Wall for a come-from-behind win, Wall showed its character by winning on the road against the Cougars. Within a span of four minutes early in the second half, Wall jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by Jake Pepe, then went down a man due to a red card as a result of a second yellow. The Crimson Knights battled Colts Neck’s potent attack and finally relented by committing a handball in the box to give the Cougars a penalty-kick equalizer.

Scoring opportunities with only 10 men were limited, but Wall cashed in on its chance when senior Sean Southwell boomed a free kick into the box that found the back of the net thanks to a keeper error. Wall held on for the win to clinch the division title and set Linstra’s haircut appointment.

Like the wins over Colts Neck, Wall had to tap into its late-game poise in order to win each of its three NJSIAA Tournament games. The Crimson Knights fell behind, 1-0, against Toms River South in the sectional quarterfinal before eventually pulling out a 2-1 overtime win on a golden goal by Pepe.

In the sectional semifinal, Brick jumped out to a 1-0 halftime lead before Pepe sparked a three-goal second half (two goals and an assist) to deliver the Knights a 3-1 win and another trip to the sectional final round.

In the championship, Toms River East tied the game in the 70th minute, setting the stage for a winning penalty kick by Southwell in the 76th.

Southwell became the latest All-Shore-caliber defender to anchor Wall’s back four and his move to center back from his 2019 position of defensive center midfield was one of Linstra’s astute lineup decisions of 2020. Linstra also tapped senior goalkeeper Christian Cosenza as his other center midfielder and went with juniors Kyle Horowitz and Dan Hyde on the outside – with Horowitz also shifting from midfielder to fullback.

The 2020 team did not get a chance to keep playing past the sectional final round as the 2019 team did and we will never know how Wall would have fared against a Shore Conference Tournament field (the SCT was not played for the first time since 1983) and against the other top Group III programs. However, between last year’s scoreless run to a state final and this year’s unbeaten performance, Wall has proven it is up for any challenge while again ascending to the upper-echelon of the Shore Conference.

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