HOLMDEL -- Whatever a regular season has in store for the Holmdel boys soccer team, this much is certain: November is when the Hornets are at their best.

For the ninth time in the last 18 seasons, Holmdel raised an NJSIAA sectional championship trophy on Saturday afternoon and it was the result of a championship-caliber defensive effort and a clutch finish by a senior leader.

Holmdel's defense kept a potent Manasquan attack off the scoreboard and senior Frankie Brusco delivered the winning goal in the 73rd minute as Holmdel -- the No. 1 seed in the Central Jersey Group II section -- edged the sixth-seeded Warriors, 1-0, to seize its second consecutive sectional championship.

"It feels great," Brusco said. "Holmdel has been a great team for the past decade, so to be able to build on that résumé feels great."

Photo: Nick Lowe
Photo: Nick Lowe

Over the course of the first 70-plus minutes, Holmdel built up an attack that produced multiple scoring opportunities, but the two best scoring chances during that span of time belonged to Manasquan.

Midway through the first half, sophomore Cruz Farkas got off a shot with Holmdel goalkeeper Matt Campillay scrambling back to the goal, but senior Luke Brand positioned himself on the right post and stopped the shot from clearing the line.

In the 65th minute, Manasquan junior Brandon Kunz beat Campillay to create an open goal, but sophomore Connor Paul made a sliding tackle to breakup the potential winning score.

"Connor made a great play there," junior defender Tyler Gravier said. "He poured out all his heart there, because we're just playing 100 percent all the time. It's just communication: 17 games we have played together and just knowing each other left and right and communication is a big part of that."

From there, Holmdel produced the majority of the shot attempts and finally turned one into a goal in the 73rd minute.

Junior Stepan Kapranov overcame tight defense and a deflection in the middle of the field and emerged with the ball heading toward the goal on an angle from the right side. Kapranov drove a low pass into the box and Brusco beat the Manasquan defender to it for a one-timed chip over Manasquan junior goalkeeper Dylan Morris.

"They battled us hard all game, so to be able to put the ball in the back of the net was a great feeling, especially that late in the game," Brusco said. "Stepan is a great player. He is able to do anything with the ball, so I saw him taking that ball (toward) the end-line, I saw the ball coming across, so I went front post, got a foot on it and scored."

Manasquan's efforts to tie the game came up empty and included a header by Griffin Linstra that Campillay corralled with a diving stop.

Saturday's championship game played differently than the regular-season match between Manasquan and Holmdel, which ended with Holmdel scoring a golden goal to pick up a 3-2 victory in a meeting of two unbeaten teams at start of the game on Sept. 22.

Holmdel's defense has undergone a transformation since the start of the tournament, with standout senior David Weiner dropping from center midfield to center fullback. He combined with junior Tyler Gravier to lead the defense in the middle of the field, while Brand, Paul and fellow sophomore Dom Poli also contributed to the clean sheet.

Gravier came off with an injury in the first half, but made it back on the field to help close out the win. The junior missed the first two games of the state tournament while serving a red-card suspension that was levied at the end of Holmdel's Shore Conference Coaches Cup championship win over Rumson-Fair Haven on Oct. 21.

"There was no way I wasn't going to play in this game," Gravier said. "My team got me here, so I wasn't going to let my finger stop me from playing this game and getting a win for my team. They deserve me to play out there for them."

On the other side, Manasquan came up short in its bid for a first ever NJSIAA sectional title for the program. The Warriors last made it to the sectional final round in 2018, when they lost to Delran in the South Jersey Group II final.

Manasquan will graduate two captains and key contributors in Lucas Farkas and Luke Roy, as well as a starting defender in Patrick Woodrow, but is a junior-loaded roster that will have a realistic chance to return to the championship stage of the tournament in 2024 and complete the title run.

Holmdel's next challenge will be to overcome South Jersey Group II champion Delran, which survived a round of penalty kicks Saturday to top West Deptford in the South Group II championship. Delran defeated Holmdel in last year's Group II semifinal at Delran and will now head north to play on Holmdel's home turf with a spot in the Group II championship game on the line.

Holmdel and Delran have met seven times in the last 10 state tournaments and last year was the first time the Bears beat Holmdel without going to penalty kicks. Holmdel's NJSIAA Tournament record vs. Delran since 2012 is 4-1-2.

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