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MIDDLETOWN -- A team that wins 19 games against quality competition tends to win in a lot of different ways and that is a description that suits the 2021 Christian Brothers Academy soccer team.

For its 20th win of the season, however, the Colts had to win a match unlike any other they have played this fall.

Senior Dylan Cupo scored two goals, including the last CBA goal that proved to be the game-winner in a wild, 5-4, Colts win over Notre Dame that locked up a fifth South Jersey Non-Public A championship in the last seven years for CBA.

"It's good to have a variety of experiences throughout the season," Cupo said. "This tournament has so many good teams and it's great to be able to test the waters and see how good we really are. It's good to get those wins under pressure like we have all year because then you're not worried on the field. We're always in the game and we always feel like we can finish a game and today was an example of that."

Photo by Matt Manley

Notre Dame headed to Lincroft Thursday afternoon coming off one of the biggest wins of the season in the entire state. On Monday, the Irish went on the road to upset Pingry -- the No. 2 seed in the section but the No. 1 ranked team in the state at 18-0-1 and shocked the Big Blue in overtime, 2-1.

"That's a very explosive Notre Dame team," CBA coach Tom Mulligan said. "They have scored a lot of goals this fall and they were not going to fall down and quit on themselves or on the game. CBA is not going to quit on the game either, so it was a great, competitive high school soccer game."

On Thursday, CBA appeared poised to rout the high-riding visitors by playing perhaps its best half of the season over the first 40 minutes. The Colts built leads of 3-0 and 4-1 in the match, but Notre Dame rallied to cut its deficit to one goal on two separate occasions with a furious effort that began to pay off beginning late in the first half.

To get CBA started, junior Will Thygeson slammed in a cross from classmate Jack D'Eletto in the 12th minute, with D'Eletto racing the ball up the right side, cutting it into the box while splitting two defenders, and sliding a cross that Thygeson tracked to the far post for the simple finish.

The game stayed fairly stable for the next 18 minutes until CBA struck again, with Cupo finishing his first goal off a pass over the top from senior defender Jack McGagh to make it 2-0 in the 30th.

"A lot of teams that come in here want to start quick," Cupo said. "They want to get us on our heels and we actually did that today. It's good to make the first move and to make them have to come back."

From there, the action reached a frenzied level. CBA quickly made it 3-0 in the 33rd on a 30-yard shot by sophomore Dimitry Corba that dipped under the crossbar.

Cupo then slammed a shot off the crossbar less than a minute later to barely miss extending the CBA lead to 4-0.

 

"We were happy with our performance but we knew the job wasn't finished," Thygeson said. "We have great coaches who told us they (Notre Dame) were going to come out punching. They have seniors who were playing, potentially, their last high school game and to their credit, they hit us in the mouth and scored some exceptional goals."

Notre Dame turned the miss around, with Owen Barlow burying a shot from the top of the 18-yard box in the 34th to get the Irish on the board at 3-1.

The teams made it to halftime with the 3-1 score, but not before D'Eletto hammered CBA's third shot of the first half off the crossbar -- this one with a minute left before intermission.

"We scored three very good goals and we hit three crossbars on separate plays in the first half," Mulligan said. "So I think we could have finished this game, but that's not soccer. Soccer is sometimes a game of inches and we talked about that at halftime. We told them the next two goals are going to be really important, believe it or not, and they were."

The Colts again stretched their lead to three goals in the 51st, when senior Jake Homowitz bent a corner kick toward the goal and it glanced off the head of a Notre Dame defender and into the far right corner for a 4-1 CBA lead.

Four minutes later, Notre Dame came back to life when Aiden Hoenisch chased down a flick from Danny Bensch and finished to make it 4-2. Less than two minutes after their second goal, the Irish cut their deficit to one on a finish by Kyle Allen.

"It just became a slugfest," Thygeson said. "It was who can outlast who and we were ready to fight and scrap for everything. It was, by no means, a perfect game. We made mistakes, but we picked each other up and found a way to win."

CBA only played another five-plus minutes with a one-goal lead. Sophomore Dylan Millevoi won the ball away from Notre Dame in the CBA third of the field and blasted it up to D'Eletto. The junior took the ball toward the left post and played a pass across the box for Cupo, who easily converted it for a 5-3 CBA lead.

"Coach (Mulligan) always says, 'You only have to win by one goal,'" Cupo said. "We knew that wasn't going to be good enough today because they (Notre Dame) are a great team that wasn't going to lie down. We knew we had to keep scoring because they have a lot of talent and they are going off a great win last game. We knew they weren't done."

Millevoi's physical takeaway near the CBA goal was a point of contention for the Notre Dame bench and XI on the field and it was a breaking point of sorts, as the yellow cards came fast and furious following Notre Dame's visible and audible displeasure that Millevoi was not called for a foul and that the no-call resulted in a successful CBA counter-attack that added to the Notre Dame deficit.

"That is not our customary way to play, but the kids have to figure it out," Mulligan said. "We try to preach to them all season long that you guys are the ones playing the game and you have to figure it out. We call it a puzzle and you have to solve the puzzle on the field.

"When the game goes sideways, you just have to trust each other out on the field, play for each other and communicate with each other, because you are out there with each other."

While the fouls picked up, the scoring slowed down for the final 18 minutes and Notre Dame's comeback effort took a hit when James Watson was issued his second yellow card, disqualifying him from the match and giving CBA an 11-on-10 advantage the rest of the way.

Still, Notre Dame earned a penalty kick with 38 seconds left and Bensch buried it to make the score 5-4, but the Colts ran out the clock to secure the win and earn a showdown with Seton Hall Prep in Sunday's Non-Public A final.

"I said going into the tournament that I think the Non-Public A Tournament, by itself, is one of the best tournaments in the entire country because of the quality of teams up and down New Jersey," Mulligan said. "Unfortunately, most of those teams are not going to walk away a champion, but fortunately, today, CBA did. Whoever wins this tournament has definitely earned all the accolades they are going to receive."

While CBA has won the South Jersey Non-Public A championship five of the last seven years, the Colts have actually won an NJSIAA sectional championship in six of the last seven, with the 2020 playoffs offering CBA a modified section that did not include typical Non-Public A rivals like St. Augustine and Notre Dame. Because of a season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was not overall group championship in 2020.

"We had a lot of talent last year and it felt like it went unfulfilled not being able to take that last step," Cupo said. "Since the very beginning of the season, we have had our eye on being able to take that last step and win that last game and close out the season in a better way than we were able to last year."

The only time over the past seven seasons in which CBA failed to reach the Non-Public A final when it was actually contested was in 2019, when the Colts lost, 1-0, at St. Augustine in the South Non-Public A final. Although it was a loss, that game is part of a run of eight consecutive seasons in which CBA has reached a sectional championship game, including the modified playoffs of 2020.

"The state tournament being back to the full tournament is just a tremendous feeling for the kids and their spirit," Mulligan said. "We must have had 2,000 people on the other side of the fence today. Last year, we played a sectional final in front of maybe 200 people, so the energy that was on the field, the energy that was in the crowd, from the kids from both schools that participated in the game is unparalleled."

Since Mulligan took over the CBA program in 2016, the Colts are 2-1 in the Non-Public A final, with a 2016 win over Seton Hall Prep to complete a 24-1 season and a thrilling 2-1 overtime win over Delbarton in 2018. Since CBA won its first Non-Public A championship in 1992, the Colts have been to 18 of the last 29 Non-Public A finals -- eight more than the next closest team (Delbarton) during that stretch of time.

If this year's group can topple unbeaten Seton Hall Prep on Sunday at Kean University, the Colts will finish 21-1 with their lone loss coming to an out-of-state opponent. A season like that would be worthy of comparison to CBA's greatest teams, led by the championship groups of 1998, 2002, 2011 and 2016.

"This means a lot but we still have one more game left," Cupo said. "I think we know that we're happy, but we're not satisfied and we want to go get the last one."