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COLTS NECK -- Over his two-plus decades as the head boys soccer coach Art Collier has always fancied himself a defense-first coach.

It has worked pretty well for him and his team, too. The Cougars have an NJSIAA Group I championship to their credit, trips to the Shore Conference Tournament finals and semifinals 18 years apart, and a multiple division championships while playing in the Class A North and Class B North divisions in the Shore Conference.

Early this season, however, Collier came to the realization that if this year's Cougars team had any chance to add to the program's collection of titles, it was going to take a more attack-minded approach.

Now in early October, Colts Neck is playing like one of the Shore's most dangerous teams going toward the goal, which Ocean Township found out Saturday in a match that decided the Class B North championship.

Colts Neck's four foremost goal-scoring threats -- sophomore Kyle Moore and seniors Jairo Chira, Nick Mavica and Jeff DeCarvalho -- all scored and the Cougars took down an ailing Spartans side, 4-1, to capture the outright Class B North championship one year after winning a share of it a year ago.

"They're coming together and gelling as a team," Collier said. "We're finally starting to figure out who needs to go where and at the right time. They're playing much better than I expected they would when I first looked at this group on paper in August."

It took less than four minutes for Colts Neck's dynamic duo of Chira and Moore to link up for the first goal of the game. Senior Josh Applebaum played a long pass to Moore, who flagged it down and centered it to Chira. The senior quickly settled the ball, cut it toward the far post, and whipped it back to the far left corner of the goal for a 1-0 lead.

"I feel like I play with a lot of energy," Chira said. "I'm always trying to score and we just work really hard. Everybody works hard, wants to win and we're playing really good."

Ocean finally responded in the early seconds of the 30th minute when senior Jake Schwartz knocked in the equalizer out of a scrum in front of the net following a throw-in by senior Dan Abrams.

The tie did not last long. Just 51 seconds later, DeCarvalho measured the ball coming toward him and drove a low shot from the edge of the 18-yard box on the right side to the far left corner of the goal.

Throughout the season, Colts Neck has made a habit of quick-strike goals, whether they follow an opponent's goal or one of its own. DeCarvalho's eye-pleasing strike was just the latest example and it turned out to be the turning point in Saturday's game.

"This team just attacks and attacks and goes forward in waves," Collier said. "It's not just one or two of them. Sometimes it's four of them in the attack."

Despite Colts Neck's one-goal lead, the play in the first half was fairly even between the teams but the Cougars changed that in the second half. Colts Neck outshot Ocean, 8-3, after halftime and converted two of those shots into scoreboard changes.

The first was a rip by Mavica off a pass through the defense from sophomore Sam Gershon, which gave Colts Neck a 3-1 lead in the 71st minute. In the 76th, Moore capped the scoring by slamming in a cross from Chira.

Colts Neck was playing an Ocean team missing two key senior starters in midfielder Thomas Alessi and forward Archeley Eugene. Alessi was sitting for a second straight game after drawing a red card at the end of Ocean's loss to Holmdel on Sept. 30 and the Spartans were only able to play one game between then and Saturday. Eugene, meanwhile, is dealing with a hamstring injury, according to coach John Terlecsky.

While the sailing is smooth at the moment for Colts Neck -- winners of four of its last five matches, with four of the five coming against teams that have been ranked in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 at one point or another this season -- the start to the season was not.

The Cougars shut out St. John Vianney and Matawan to start the season and rallied for a 2-1, road win over Jackson Liberty for a 3-0 start. Then, Colts Neck squandered a two-goal lead and had to settle for a 2-2 draw vs. St. Rose, followed by an ugly, 4-0 loss at Long Branch.

"What made things harder for us, and this is probably the case for a lot of teams in the state, if not almost all of them, was the state's decision to change the opening," Collier said, referring to the NJSIAA moving the first day of practice back to Aug. 22 for the 2022 season. "It's really made it difficult for teams to come together. When you start on August 22nd, it's hard to hit the ground running on September 8."

It was at that point Collier realized his players were square pegs for his round-hole system and made a switch to a more attack-oriented philosophy.

"I'm a coach that for the last twenty-something years has always been defense-first and over the last year or two, it's been a lot different," Collier said. "We beat Manasquan, 5-4. That's not how I draw it up. We just keeping scoring in waves.

"I think we're playing great defense because we attack so much, which is not in my DNA. We switched the system around down 4-0 to Long Branch at halftime with things coming apart all over the field and the goalkeeper getting hurt. It was like, 'Okay, it's out the window, let's experiment.' The supporting platform for the four guys who have been attacking has been really solid."

They have also broken in a new goalkeeper, with freshman Liam Collura taking over as a result of a season-ending injury to starter Dan Ravalo.

"The poise (Collura) has as a freshman is amazing," Collier said. "He's not what you would call a dyed-in-the-wool goalkeeper. He's played goalie in the past and he has been nothing but terrific, plus the guys in front of him are doing a very good. They're very, very organized. Kids today know the game inside and out, so every team we play is organized. It's a different level of soccer and it's fun to watch."

Since the Long Branch loss, Colts Neck has taken down Neptune, Manasquan, Red Bank and Ocean, while suffering its only loss of that stretch was 1-0 to a Howell team that earned the No. 2 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament.

For the second time in four seasons, Colts Neck is the No. 8 seed in the SCT and four seasons ago, eight was a magic number. In the 2019 SCT, the Cougars made it to the tournament semifinals for the first time since 2001.

"This is a very different type of team," Collier said. "There is just so much parity. You look at all the draws and they are all battles. When everyone is unhappy with their seed, there is probably a lot of parity and you've got to go out and prove it."


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