TUCKERTON - Any game from here on out could be the last for the senior class on the Central Regional boys soccer team, but they senior core did not play the first 40 minutes of Thursday's NJSIAA South Jersey Group III quarterfinal game against No. 2 seed Pinelands like it could be its final game.

With a blunt reminder from their coach at halftime and the wind at their backs for the final 40 minutes, the Golden Eagles seniors came alive in the second half, scored a goal and finished off a shutout to knock off the Wildcats, 1-0. Central moves on to play No. 3 Mainland Monday in the sectional semifinals.

"We have nine seniors and at some point we had to show we wanted to play and we wanted to keep our season going," senior sweeper Nate Wiley said. "When we saw what was at stake in the second half, we stepped up our game and got the win."

Central senior Youssef Abdelaziz. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Senior Youssef Abdelaziz scored the game's lone goal, which broke the scoreless deadlock in the 61st minute. Off a long punt by junior goalkeeper Tom Ruscitti, Abdelaziz slipped the ball to fellow senior Frank Golda on the left side and got it back from Golda 10 yards in front of the goal. Abdelaziz took one touch and knocked the ball to the left corner of the net with 19:57 left.

"Coach (Rob Bechtloff) talked about it all week that they're a good team and we're a good team," Abdelaziz said. "In the second round of states, the game is going to come down to intensity and who wants it more. Coach really got on us about that at halftime and we picked it up in the second half."

Ruscitti's punts routinely reached the opposite box thanks to the wind and that made Golda a weapon on the counter during the second half in a way that he could not be in the first.

"Frank is one of the fastest guys in the Shore so we were trying to give him a chance to be his defender and get a cross in," Abdelaziz said. "He did a great job getting to the line and crossing the ball in. I wanted to one-time it but I just had to take a touch and I still had time to shoot it."

Central's defense closed out the game by limiting Pinelands to one dangerous header that sailed over the bar. With the wind in its favor in the first half, Pinelands outshot Central 10-7. The Golden Eagles bounced back with a 9-4 shooting edge in the second half and broke through on their 14th.

"Our mentality is basically anywhere near the 18, you're stepping up and not letting the guy shoot it," Wiley said. "If they want to take shots from outside the 18, we're pretty confident that's not going to hurt us."

Central was also more accurate with their shot attempts, with 11 of their 16 chances staying on frame while the Wildcats kept six of their 14 shots on goal.

Pinelands could not cash in on their first-half opportunities, thanks, in part, to Ruscitti in goal. The Central keeper saved all six shots that came his way - five of which he made in the first half.

Central goalkeeper Tom Ruscitti. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"In the first half, they (Pinelands) were definitely playing more direct," Ruscitti said. "They had the wind, so they were definitely trying to come right at us. We had a couple little breakdowns, but nothing too bad. In the second half, we cleaned it up, we pressed them more and kept them out."

Pinelands once again played without 32-goal scorer Matt O'Connell, who missed the final four games of the season - three of which were playoff games - with a back injury.

After the game, Pinelands coach Jason Asch said he does not plan on returning as coach next season. He spent eight seasons as the head coach of the Wildcats and this year guided the team to a 16-5 record - its most successful season since 1989. Asch also spent nine seasons at Ocean County College prior to taking the Pinelands job.


Box Score

Central 1, Pinelands 0

Central (13-5-2)011
Pinelands (16-5)000

Goal (Assist): Youssef Abdelaziz (Frank Golda) 61'
Shots: Central, 16-14
Saves: (C) Tom Ruscitti 6; (P) Brian Kelleher 10