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BARNEGAT -- Since the start of the 2017 season, the Christian Brothers Academy boys soccer team has won two official Class A North division championships, an overall NJSIAA Non-Public A championship, a modified NJSIAA sectional championship and finished No. 1 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 with an undefeated season in 2020.

The Colts had not, however, added to their record 10 Shore Conference Tournament championships in that time. That is, until Thursday night.

With a roster whose seniors were freshmen the last time the program was even in the Shore Conference Tournament final, CBA put its best foot forward in beating third-seeded Toms River North, 3-0, Tuesday at Barnegat High School to collect its 11th Shore Conference Tournament championship in program history.

"This is a great tournament," CBA coach Tom Mulligan said. "Close to 50 teams at the start of the year are trying to get to tonight. Unlike a lot of other conferences, we have two very large counties with a lot of Group IV and Group III schools. In some years, winning the Shore Conference Tournament is a bigger challenge than getting to a state final. We don’t take this tournament lightly. We look forward to it."

Photo by Matt Manley

Junior Will Thygeson scored two goals on either side of halftime to lead the effort and senior Dylan Cupo assisted the first of those goals before adding one of his own in the 50th minute.

"They shut down some of the things we normally look to go to and (assistant) coach (Dave) Santos is always stressing that if one thing doesn’t work, we have to solve the puzzle," Thygeson said. "So, when some of the things that usually work weren’t working, we found a way to play through it and we solved the puzzle."

"They press really high, they press really aggressively, they put a lot of numbers up beyond midfield," Cupo said. "We don’t want to sit back and let them play, but we wanted to weather the storm, spread them out, let them press and then we play through them with our game. Getting that goal before half was great because it takes the pressure off of us, then we get to really play the way we want to play and not get caught up in the chaos that they want to create."

CBA junior Will Thygeson shadowed by Toms River North senior David Anderson. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)

After a stretch of 30-plus minutes with very little action near the two goals, CBA struck by cashing in on just the second shot it created all game. In the 34th minute, Cupo fought his way with the ball to the end-line on the right side of the goal and crossed it toward the far left post.

Thygeson won positioning against a defender, elevated, and struck a clean header into the exposed net, with Mariners senior goalkeeper Dawson Kaniuk covering the near post.

"Their outside backs were doing a terrific job forcing Jack and I to play a different style than we are used to," Thygeson said. "Dylan is a tremendous player. I have known him a long time: he is a hard worker and some of the things he is known for, he did great today but he is also multi-dimensional and he was able to show his ability to facilitate as well. I knew if I got into position to score, he would get me the ball because he is a great player. Luckily, I was able to finish it."

CBA has torched teams throughout the season with Thygeson and classmate Jack D'Eletto working the flanks and crossing balls in to Cupo, whose goal on Thursday night was his 18th of the season. The trio saw how committed Toms River North was to stopping those sideline runs to the end-line and made the adjustment.

"All season, we have been trying to vary how we attack the goal," Cupo said. Those guys (Thygeson and D’Eletto) are really great weapons on the side, but teams start to figure that out. So we have to try to figure out different ways to score. I got that ball back to the goal and I thought I would take it down to the line, let someone else get on the other end of it for a change and that’s exactly what Thygeson did."

Five minutes into the second half, D'Eletto showed there is only so much a team can do to hold him back. The junior forward beat a defender toward the end-line on the right side and drove a low cross across the mouth of the goal. Sophomore Dylan Millevoi glanced the ball with his foot as it screamed across the front of the goal and Thygeson slammed it in on the far post for a 2-0 lead.

Five minutes after goal No. 2, Cupo pounced on a mistake in the Toms River North defensive third and beat Kaniuk to the ball for an open-net finish.

"We knew if we played a good, hard, defensive ten minutes and really pressed them, the game would settle down for us," Thygeson said. "Our defense played amazing, we were able to score and then we could, as coach Santos and coach Mulligan say, take the air out of the ball a little bit. We knew the next goal was going to be important, and not surprisingly, Dylan was able to get the dagger."

Despite the lopsided final score, Toms River North outshot CBA, 8-7, although six of the Mariners shots came after CBA's third goal. Two Mariners shots clanged off the crossbar and senior A.J. Emnace had a chance at a breakaway, with his shot carrying just wide.

CBA also nearly missed a second goal in the first half when sophomore Dimity Corba slid in for a shot that hit the left post in the final 40 seconds of the half.

With another combined clean sheet for goalkeepers Joe Grossman and Ryan Hayes, CBA completed a four-game run through the tournament in which the two keepers -- Grossman a sophomore and Hayes a senior -- did not allow a goal.

"The defense, their job is to defend," Mulligan said. "They figured out their task and they have committed to it. Tonight was a little different. Toms River North really presses high all over the field. A lot of teams we have played this year will sit in on us and allow us to build out of the back with a little more tempo and a little more time. Tonight was more man-up and in-your-face soccer and it’s really nice to know that this group has the ability to win in both types of tactical scenarios, whether it’s a high-press game or a team that is going to sit in."

The four straight SCT shutouts also underline a defense that has gone from a question to open the season to an undeniable strength once the postseason began. Senior Declan Kelly was the lone returning starter, but fellow senior center back Jack McGagh and outside backs Charles Paparella and Lawrence Mancino have quickly caught on.

"Jack McGagh and Declan Kelly are two of the best defenders in the entire state, in my opinion and they did amazing today," Thygeson said. "They stood on their heads for us. Lawrence and Chuck did amazing and they are getting better every game. Those four have really been the core of our team, we depend on them heavily and they step up to meet the challenge every single game. We’re thankful to have them."

Thursday marked the first SCT championship for CBA since the 2016 team that finished No. 1 in New Jersey to end the season with a 24-1 mark. It was also the fourth time the Colts have defeated Toms River North to win the championship, the most any two teams have met in the championship game in the 38-year history of the tournament.

This year's team will not get to 24 wins, but there is a chance for a one-loss season with three championships, just as the 2016 team accomplished. With a Class A North division title and a SCT championship already secured, CBA will try to make a run in the NJSIAA Non-Public A field, with the Colts drawing the No. 1 seed in the South bracket.

Toms River North is the No. 5 seed in the South Jersey Group IV section and will be out to win a third straight sectional championship after winning the section as a No. 16 seed in 2019 and winning a modified sectional title in 2020. When it comes to the SCT, however, Toms River North could not end a 16-year drought and that 2005 championship by the Mariners remains the last time a team from Ocean County won the Shore Conference Tournament.

On the other side, CBA has now won five Shore Conference Tournament titles since 2010, which is half of the outright championships the Colts have won. One of the 11 titles was a co-championship and by winning Thursday night, the Colts made up for missing out on a chance to win the SCT in 2020, which they finished with a record of 13-0-1.

"No matter what kind of group we have, we always have high expectations," Cupo said. "Being undefeated last year and not being able to take that final step and get a real championship was a little frustrating. Resuming from last year, we started quick, we won a lot of games, but we still had a lot to work on but we figured all that out and tonight, we beat a really good team."

"Last year was a great team, but we didn’t have a Shore Conference Tournament," Thygeson said. "But that 2016 team, they were an amazing team and we are just lucky to be the next group in the legacy of CBA success. We don’t take it for granted. We know coming out here every day is a gift and we looking to keep building on our mark in CBA history."

CBA senior Dylan Cupo marked by Toms River North senior Jake Nagle. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
CBA sophomore Lawrence Mancino. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
CBA senior Jake Homowitz. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)