The NJSIAA sectional finals kick off with the non-publics on Thursday afternoon and the collection of Shore Conference teams to make it this far has an underdog flavor to it. Three of the five teams are seeded in the double-digits and four of the five will be try to bring home a title on the road.

The festivities start on Thursday, with Christian Brothers Academy travelling to play top-seeded St. Augustine in the South Jersey Non-Public A title game and seeking a fifth straight sectional title. The focus shifts to the public championships on Friday, when three Cinderella teams - No. 11 Ocean (Central Group III), No. 13 Long Branch (Central IV) and No. 16 Toms River North (South IV) - all try to stay hot for at least one more game while the temperatures are expected to get awfully cold.

Read on for a deep dive into each of the four championship games and follow along throughout the next two days for coverage of the Shore in the sectional finals.

 

NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A Championship

Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019

No. 2 Christian Brothers Academy (13-3-3) at No. 1 St. Augustine (18-4), 4 p.m.

The South Jersey Non-Public A championship game matchup is a familiar one and it has been a beneficial one for CBA over the years. The Colts have won the last four sectional titles and have beaten St. Augustine in three of the last four championship games – including last year. The last two times these two programs met in the final, CBA has outscored the Hermits by a combined total of 9-1 – 5-0 in 2016 and 4-1 in 2018. CBA won the overall Non-Public A championship in both those seasons.

The last time St. Augustine reached the Non-Public A final was 2010, when the Hermits beat Pingry in the Non-Public A championship game but did not beat CBA to get there. The last time St. Augustine beat CBA in the NJSIAA Tournament was 2008 and since that win, CBA is 5-0 against St. Augustine.

CBA senior Luke Pascarella. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The wrinkle in this year’s showdown is that St. Augustine will have home-field advantage. In year’s past, the Non-Public A title game has been played on a neutral site but the NJSIAA changed the format of the non-public tournaments this year, awarding home-field advantage in the sectional final to the higher seed.

St. Augustine is in the middle of what could be its best season since winning Non-Public A in 2010. The Hermits did not lose to a team from New Jersey until Oakcrest beat them, 2-1, on Oct. 14 in the Cape Atlantic League Tournament. Moorestown also knocked off St. Augustine, 2-0, in the South Jersey Coaches’ Association Tournament for the second of two losses vs. in-state competition.

The Hermits boast a capable starting XI, with seniors Kevin Witkoski (17 goals) and Antonio Matos (14) leading the scoring effort. Senior goalkeeper Anthony Libero and the defense have allowed 22 goals in 22 games while posting 10 shutouts, but have allowed just 12 goals in 19 games excluding three matches against out-of-state opponents.

On the other side, CBA has leaned on its defense and senior goalkeeper A.J. Pinto throughout the season after graduating seven starters from last year’s Non-Public A championship team. Pinto has also posted 10 shutouts in his first season as a starter and came up with some key second-half saves to help CBA ward off Notre Dame, 2-1, in Tuesday’s sectional semifinal. CBA’s top defender, senior center back Connor Anderko, also scored in that win.

CBA senior Connor Anderko. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Senior Luke Pascarella leads the attack with 16 goals and eight assists one year after winning the state championship with his golden-goal free kick with 19 seconds left in the second overtime period against Delbarton. Junior Shane Borenius has stepped up with eight goals in his first year as a starter, but has yet to score in the NJSIAA Tournament. Junior Brett Sieg, meanwhile, has netted two goals – one in each win – in the tournament after entering play with just one goal on the season.

If there is a year for St. Augustine to end the hex CBA has had over the Hermits, this would be a good one. This CBA team, though, is strong defensively and has been crafty when it comes to scoring when it needs to. Make it five in a row for the Colts. The Pick: CBA, 2-1

 

NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III Championship

Friday, Nov. 8, 2019

No. 11 Ocean (10-9-1) at No. 1 Wall (15-4-1), Noon (at Wall Municipal Complex)

Wall and Ocean are perennial contenders in Central Jersey Group III so in that sense, it is no surprise to see these two programs playing for a championship. Last year, Ocean beat Wall, 2-0, in the Central Group III semifinals on the way to winning the Group III championship and Wall will be looking for its postseason revenge, as well as its first sectional championship since winning Group III in 2004.

As far as Wall goes, its presence in the championship game should come as no surprise. On top of drawing the No. 1 seed in the section, the Crimson Knights boast a senior-led lineup, including an all-senior back line in front of junior goalkeeper Sebastian Campanile. That unit has conceded 13 goals in 20 games and none during the three-game run to the championship.

Wall junior Jake Pepe defended by Freehold Township junior Joe Lardaro. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

On the attack, Wall is led by junior forward Jake Pepe and his 10 goals and five assists while senior center back Tagg Ancrum has pushed up for six goals and six assists. Pepe and Ancrum have done damage in the state tournament, with Pepe posting two goals and two assists and Ancrum scoring three goals in the first two games. Neither got on the board in the sectional semifinal against Allentown, but the defense and Campanile delivered with 100 scoreless minutes and the Crimson Knights escaped on penalties, 4-3.

Ocean also advanced to the championship game on penalties after a 0-0 game against a team from Mercer County to make it three straight state-tournament shutouts. That’s where the similarities between the two Shore Conference Class B North rivals end. The Spartans turned back No. 15 seed Lawrence to reach the sectional-final round for the third straight year and fourth in the last five, but it was far from expected. The No. 11 seed in the tournament, Ocean had to beat No. 6 Hopewell Valley and No. 3 Steinert on the road to earn that third-round home game and did so with 1-0 wins in both. Now the Spartans are one win away from successfully defending their Central Group III title after failing to defend their Shore Conference Tournament title by not even qualifying.

Ocean senior Eli Brandimarte. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Ocean is led by a pair of returning starters from last year’s Group III championship team and an upstart sophomore who played some key minutes. Seniors Eli Brandimarte and Rob Lopes have accounted for the two state-tournament goals by the Spartans and sophomore Aidan Tisony assisted each one. Brandimarte has taken the lead in guiding Ocean, moving from marking back to center back while still contributing a team-best 11 goals this season.

During the regular season, Wall blanked Ocean, 2-0, to officially wrap up the Class B North championship, with junior Philip Lyons scoring shortly before the half and Ancrum scoring midway through the second half to put away the Spartans, who could not crack Wall’s sturdy defense. Friday’s venue will be the same – the Wall Municipal Complex turf field – but the conditions will most certainly be different. The forecast is calling for temperatures in the low 40’s and high 30’s with winds gusting at 20 miles-per-hour, which will make Friday the coldest day of the season to date. With a championship on the line, both teams will have greater concerns than the weather and the familiarity makes the game even harder to forecast. Ocean is the hot team but Wall has the seniors and the home field. The Pick: Wall, 1-0

 

NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Championship

Friday, Nov. 8, 2019

No. 16 Toms River North (11-7-1) at No. 2 Egg Harbor (18-5), 2 p.m.

Any team entering the sectional championship round of the NJSIAA Tournament is excited after advancing to the final round but “excited” doesn’t do justice to how the two South Jersey Group IV semifinalists were feeling after their respective wins on Tuesday.

Egg Harbor is playing in its first sectional final since 1996 and the Eagles reached Friday’s title game by dethroning five-time defending sectional champion Washington Township, 1-0. Ahmad Brock delivered the deciding blow with his goal midway through the first half and the Egg Harbor defense held on to officially end Washington Township’s run just 15 days after Washington beat the Eagles, 2-1, in the South Jersey Coaches Tournament quarterfinal round.

Fittingly enough, Washington’s run of championships began with its first ever sectional title in 2014, when the Minutemen beat Toms River North, 2-1, in the South Jersey IV final. This is Toms River North’s first trip back to the sectional final since and the Mariners’ run to the championship game has been as stunning as any finalist in the state. Toms River North ranked 17th in power points among South Jersey Group IV teams but earned a spot in the tournament because of a .500 record after 13 games.

Toms River North has since worn the No. 16 seed as a badge of honor, which shines brighter with each win. The Mariners opened up the tournament by shocking top-seeded Clearview, 2-0, and continued with another 2-0 win in the quarterfinals against No. 8 Cherry Hill East. Facing a Jackson Memorial side that beat them on Oct. 21, the Mariners bounced back from a 1-0 deficit and won the game, 2-1, on a goal by junior Ali Baish with 1:38 left on the scoreboard clock.

Toms River North junior Ali Baish. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Baish’s goal was his first of the tournament and ninth of the season to go with eight assists, one of which came in the win over Clearview. Junior Parker Nickelsen and senior Jake Baurerband each have two goals during the tournament as well, with Nickelsen sporting seven goals and five assists this year and Baurerband four goals and five assists.

Baurerband is one of only three senior starters on Toms River North, which is hitting its stride as its young core is growing up as varsity soccer players. The Mariners opened the season with a 5-4, overtime win over Shore Conference Tournament champion Freehold Township and after a roller-coaster of a season followed, they have found that opening-night magic once again – now with a more experienced group.

Long Branch senior Eryck Lazo. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Toms River North will have to contend with Brock, who has racked up 27 goals and 14 assists to lead an otherwise-balanced attack that does not sport another double-digit goal-scorer outside of the talented junior striker. Although Egg Harbor has had no less than a four-seed advantage in each game, the Eagles have slipped by each of their state tournament opponents by a one-goal margin in games that have been increasingly more defensive. It started with a 4-3 overtime win over No. 15 Lenape, followed by another overtime win – this time over No. 7 Shawnee, 3-2.

The 1-0 deficit against Jackson Memorial was Toms River North’s only deficit of the tournament and it lasted all of 58 seconds. It’s hard to go against a team that just took down Washington Township but Toms River North has been the more consistent team during this tournament both teams are finding ways to score, but Toms River North has kept the ball out of the net. With 80 more minutes of defense like that, the Mariners will complete the unthinkable journey and celebrate their first sectional crown in 10 years. The Pick: Toms River North, 2-1

 

NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV Championship

Friday, Nov. 8, 2019

No. 13 Long Branch (11-7-2) at No. 2 Hunterdon Central (16-4), 4 p.m.

Hunterdon Central is no stranger to hosting the Central Group IV championship game and since moving back to Central Jersey from North Section 2 for the 2011 season, the Red Devils have hosted the sectional final four times and won twice – in 2013 and 2016. They also won North 2, Group IV in 2010, giving Hunterdon Central three titles in nine years.

Hunterdon Central has had a few losses on its home field in recent years, most notably in the 2017 and 2018 championship games against Princeton and East Brunswick, respectively. As far as the locals go, Flemington has been where Shore dreams go to die. Since 2012, the Red Devils are 7-2-1 against Shore Conference teams, including 7-0-1 at home. The draw was a scoreless tie against Marlboro in the 2016 sectional final, which Hunterdon Central won on penalty kicks. The two losses were both on the road – to top-seeded Jackson Memorial in 2012 and to eventual sectional champion Manalapan in 2014.

Long Branch senior Patrick O'Dwyer. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

If Long Branch is going to break the spell, it will have to battle frigid temperatures, as well as a stone-cold defense that conceded more than a goal once over the last 10 matches and that was a 5-0 loss to national powerhouse St. Benedict’s. On top of that, it is hard to defend Hunterdon Central because its attack is so balanced. Over its last five wins – which span the last two rounds of the Warren-Sussex-Hunterdon Tournament and the first three of the state tournament – Hunterdon Central has scored 16 goals with 10 different goal-scorers.

Long Branch’s scoring has been much more concentrated, with senior Patrick O’Dwyer posting a team-high 21 goals. During the state tournament, however, the Green Wave have been a more diverse scoring outfit, with O’Dwyer still factoring in prominently. The senior forward has only one of Long Branch’s five goals but it was perhaps its biggest – the golden goal to beat SCT champion Freehold Township in the opening round.

Second-leading scorer Eryck Lazo (seven goals, eight assists) also scored in that Freehold Township win to tie the game in the second half. In a 1-0 win over Princeton, junior Herbert Ruiz headed in a free kick by junior Brian Completo and on Tuesday against Marlboro, Completo scored the equalizer in the 71st minute. The Long Branch comeback ended with junior center midfielder Jason Laviola scoring his first goal of the season – a game-winner in the 78th minute.

While Hunterdon Central looks to add to its already-crowded, ever-growing trophy case, Long Branch is in search of its first sectional title since 1997. The Green Wave only recently moved up to Group IV and the last time it was in a sectional final, Long Branch lost to Holmdel in the 2012 Central Group II championship game. With road wins over the No. 4, No. 5 and No. 1 seeds, the Green Wave are playing like a team that belongs in the championship game despite its No. 13 seed. Logic would have it that the No. 2 seed is just another game, but this won’t be just another game. Hunterdon Central is built for this moment and after back-to-back losses in the sectional final, the Red Devils will be rabid. The Pick: Hunterdon Central, 3-1

 

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