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MIDDLETOWN - To this point of the 2021 season, there have been some stark differences between this year's Christian Brothers Academy soccer team and the one that went 13-0-1 to finish No. 1 in the final Shore Sports Network Top 10 in 2020.

The process may look like a divergence from last year's, but the results have been similar: the best the Shore Conference has to offer has not figured out how to beat the Colts.

CBA once again fell behind Saturday but as they have done all year, the Colts rallied with a strong second half to beat Toms River North, 4-2, in a battle between the top two teams in the Shore Sports Network Top 10.

"That was a major test passed by our players," CBA coach Tom Mulligan said. "I knew we had a good team and now they have proven to me they can play at the level that is necessary to compete for and possibly win a championship. I think Toms River North is a championship-level team."

PHOTO GALLERY: Toms River North at CBA by Ray Richardson

CBA senior Dylan Cupo (11) battles Toms River North senior Jimmy Ruppe. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
CBA senior Dylan Cupo (11) battles Toms River North senior Jimmy Ruppe. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Senior forward Dylan Cupo led the charge with his first career hat trick at the varsity level, including the tying and go-ahead goals, plus the final CBA goal that put the Colts up, 4-1.

"I think Dylan Cupo put a lot of it on his big shoulders today," Mulligan said. "I know he really wanted to play well today. I heard him talking to his teammates before the game and I think he wanted to put on a little bit of a display. He has been feeling lately like he hasn't been playing up to his capability. That's the sense I get -- he hasn't told me that, I haven't told him that -- but I think, for himself, he wanted to prove something out there today."

The No. 2 Mariners set the tone with a strong showing in the first half, but could not make it to halftime with the lead. Senior Will Buono converted a sliding finish off a cross from classmate Jared Brown to give Toms River North the 1-0 lead in the 15th minute and the Mariners continued to control play for most of the remainder of the half.

Before intermission, however, CBA erased the lead thanks to Cupo and his superior size relative to the Toms River North defense. Senior Nick Bartlewitz served a corner kick to the middle of the box, where Cupo rose up over the defense and headed in the equalizer in the 38th minute.

"Coach Mulligan said they have scored quickly in a lot of their matches," Cupo said of Toms River North. "We wanted to come out and match their intensity. We went down 1-0 and we weren't really phased by it. We knew we could get back into it and once we got the goal before halftime, it was a good morale booster to know we were even with them. We just had to keep putting in the work to go up."

In the second half, CBA swung the momentum completely to its side, winning more 50-50 balls, disrupting Toms River North's possession and pushing closer to the Mariners goal. The improved play paid off with three goals in a span of five minutes to turn a tightly-contested 1-1 game into a 4-1 runaway.

Cupo pounced on a loose ball after a scramble in the box and drilled it in from close range for a 2-1 CBA lead in the 55th minute.

In the 59th, senior defender Jack McGagh pushed up and headed in a free kick from junior Will Thygeson. Cupo capped the outburst with his third goal -- a rip from the top of the 18-yard box in the 60th minute.

"Through the air, it has worked a lot recently," Cupo said. "Our corner kicks have been great. It's in the same spot every time. It's something we have really tried to work on and it's been a real strength so far. That's what high school soccer is. There are a lot of goals on restarts, so we have done our part in capitalizing on those opportunities."

Against Toms River North, however, a 4-1 lead was not entirely safe. Brown worked his way to a goal in the 64th minute to pull the Mariners within a pair of goals and Toms River North stayed on the attack the rest of the way.

CBA senior goalkeeper Ryan Hayes came through with a diving save on a shot by Brown in the 71st minute to keep the lead at two goals and in the final five minutes, Toms River North senior Mattia Assante turned the corner and slid a dangerous pass across the mouth of the goal, but no Mariner could get to the other end of the pass for a finish.

Saturday marks Toms River North's first loss, leaving Lacey as the last remaining unbeaten team and leaving no teams with a perfect record. Toms River North entered Saturday having outscored five opponents, 24-1, and CBA quadrupled that total in 80 minutes.

The Colts, meanwhile, stayed true to its script of 2021, which has been dramatically different from the 2020 formula. CBA did not trail at all in the 13-0-1 2020 campaign and yet, the 2022 Colts have won three games in which they have trailed: Long Branch, Freehold Township and again on Saturday.

"We have an issue with playing to the level of our competition," Mulligan said. "That could be a good thing, like it was today. But we tend to play the first half trying to feel out the opponent and then later in the game is when we have elevated our play. It's not something we are used to at CBA, but every season is different and it has been part of this team's personality."

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