PENNINGTON - The Holmdel boys soccer team won 20 games before its NJSIAA Group II semifinal game Tuesday night vs. Delran and somehow, it did not needed its reigning Player of the Year and Monmouth University commit Anthony Arena to bail out the Hornets with a big goal in any of them.

On Tuesday at Hopewell Valley High School, the Hornets needed someone to come through in the clutch and Arena came to the rescue.

The senior striker shook off a pair of defenders to settle a long pass from classmate Jack Russo and buried a shot to the far side netting in the 59th minute - the winning goal in Holmdel's 2-1 win over Delran in a battle between two top-10 teams in N.J.

"I knew coming into this game that I had to do something," Arena said. "The last few games, I haven't been able to score so tonight, I knew something was going to have to happen. Something was going to have to click for me."

With Tuesday's win, Holmdel advances to the Group II final for the second straight year and the third time in four years.

"Every single time we play them, it's going to be a rivalry game," Arena said. "It's never going to be a blowout. We knew it was going to be a battle coming into the game and it wasn't going to be easy."

With the game tied at 1-1 midway through the second half and Delran fresh off a pair of near goals on the other end of the field, Holmdel won the ball in the middle of the field. Play swung around to Russo on the right side and senior outside back served a long pass toward the right post.

Arena tracked it down, shook off a pair of defenders and struck what proved to be the winning shot into the far side netting. It was Arena's first goal in three games and his 17th in 16 games this season.

"When the ball got played over, it skipped past the one guy just like it did (on a goal vs. Delran) last year," Arena said. "I think he thought I was going to take a touch so I just let it go, he ran by and I put it on net."

Holmdel played six games without Arena and went 6-0 while the senior recovered from a hamstring injury and has dominated the majority of its opponents on the scoreboard to the point that Arena's offense has been as much a bonus as it has been necessary.

Arena did score a game-tying goal on a penalty kick in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinal against Ocean, which Holmdel lost on penalties.

The Arena winner was nearly identical to his go-ahead goal in last year's 3-1 win over Delran at the same point of the tournament.

"The space was still there," Russo said. "The outside was open, I saw (Arena) make that diagonal run so I just played it over the top and let him do the rest."

Much of Holmdel's pressure came from Russo and Mark Walier on the outside and Fergusen's service also game from near the sideline.

"They did a tremendous job of closing out the passing lanes and staying compact," Holmdel coach John Nacarlo said. "We talked about playing those combinations and once they play the ball, they had to be moving, closing out those passing lanes and getting us out."

After Arena's go-ahead goal, Holmdel keeper Jack Murray came up with a key save with nine minutes left on the clock, parrying the ball over the crossbar with one hand. Prior to the Arena winner, Delran's Chris Hunt nearly gave the Bears the lead when Murray came off his line and his shot clanged off the far left post before the Holmdel defense cleared it away.

Murray's save marked Delran's last close scoring call, but it was not the last scoring chance of the game. Arena one-timed a shot just wide of the near right post in the 73rd minute and had and even better opportunity in the 76th.

Senior Joe Arena drew a foul in the box to earn a penalty kick for his team with just over four minutes to play. Anthony Arena took the penalty shot and ripped a strike to the left side of the goal, but Delran keeper Haliloglu Berkant made a diving save to his right to deny Arena his second goal and Holmdel a huge insurance goal.

The missed penalty kick did not hurt the Hornets, which ran out the clock by keeping the ball in Delran's end for the majority of the final four minutes.

The two teams came out fast on the offensive end, with Holmdel opening the scoring in the seventh minute. Russo was on the finishing end on the first one, heading in a well-placed diagonal cross from left-to-right by senior Ryan Fergusen to the far post.

"Me and Ferg have developed a nice little chemistry," Russo said. "We kind of made eye contact with me, I knew he would play a nice ball in. It was right on my head so all I had to do was finish it."

Holmdel's lead was short-lived as Delran answered in the 11th minute on a header of its own. A Holmdel defender headed a Delran service back toward Murray, but Jayson Vandermark beat the senior keeper to the ball and headed it in.

From that point on, Holmdel controlled the majority of possession, but Delran got off more shots to the tune of a 9-7 advantage.

"They outplayed us in the first half," Russo said. "At halftime, the coaches really let us know that if we played like that again, we weren't going to win. We relied on Joe a lot to get our energy up and we just play harder."

Tuesday's win continued Holmdel's dominance in a head-to-head rivalry that ramped up back in 2012, when the two teams met for the first time in coach John Nacarlo's tenure as Holmdel head coach. Since then, Holmdel owns a 4-0-2 edge in the head-to-head series, with Delran's only triumph coming on penalty kicks in the Central Jersey Group II semifinals in 2014.

With one more win, Holmdel will not only capture its second straight Group II championship by would also finish off an undefeated season that could possibly result in the Hornets finishing No. 1 in the state, according to

Standing in Holmdel's way will be Glen Rock, another undefeated side coming off a convincing 6-0 win over Hackettstown in the other Group II semifinal.

"Our shirts say 'Leave Your Legacy,'" Nacarlo said. "When everything kind of fell into place with some teams losing and now we have a chance to be the number one team in the state and go unbeaten, there is something to be said about leaving a legacy now. They have one more game where they can do that."

"We want to be number one in the state," Anthony Arena said. "We're next in line for it so we're just trying to get refocused and bring it home for the Shore."

Box Score

Holmdel 2, Delran 1

Holmdel (21-0-1)112
Delran (17-6)101

Goals (Assists): (H) Jack Russo (Ryan Fergusen) 7', Anthony Arena (Jack Russo) 59'; (D) Jayson Vandermark 11'
Shots: Delran, 9-7
Saves: (H) Jack Murray 3; (D) Haliloglu Berkant 1


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