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TOMS RIVER - Toms River North boys soccer coach Joe Mahon distinctly remembers seeing the face of his senior defensive leader, Jack Montanile, when his junior season ended just one game away from playing in a state championship game.

On Saturday, Montanile and just about every one of his teammates once again could not keep the tears from flowing after their season had ended.

"I can remember Jack Montanile crying last year and there was so much sorrow in his face and in so many of the faces of the rest of the guys," Mahon said.

There was, however, a major difference from last year: this time, the Mariners ended their season with a win.

Junior Jake Nagle connected on a game-tying goal with 1:53 left in regulation and 59 seconds into overtime, senior Danny Moreno scored the golden goal to cap a thrilling, come-from-behind, 3-2 win for top-seeded Toms River North over No. 2 Southern in the Central Jersey East Group IV South title game.

Photo by Matt Manley

"The bond that these kids have had with one another for the last two years, it's unbreakable," Mahon said. "I was really emotional when we won because you want the kids to experience that celebration that they have worked so hard for. They were so emotional and I think it was because it was their last game, the last time they're going to play on this field and they ended it with a championship. I love them. I love this group and I'm going to miss coaching them."

With a second straight championship slipping away, Toms River North threw numbers forward over the final six minutes in an effort to equalize. The opportunity finally came with just under two minutes left and it started with a long throw-in from Moreno - a skill his coach did not even know he possessed before Saturday.

"We went with a four-two-four, which I got from Toms River South when Ed Leibe was coaching there," Mahon said. "We kept four defenders back so the ball wouldn't be played around us, had two center-midfielders to win the second ball and jumped pumped balls in to the four guys up top. And I didn't know Danny had that throw-in and all of a sudden, he is throwing the ball into the goal. When you do that, it starts bouncing around and crazy things start to happen."

Southern headed out Moreno's throw, but it rolled right to Nagle. With another defender bearing down on him, Nagle lined up a left-footed shot and got it off just in time and with plenty of zip to tuck it into the left side netting from 10 yards out.

"We really didn't want it to end like that," Nagle said. "I had an opportunity and I knew I had to capitalize to keep the season alive. Jack means so much to me, along with Parker, Ali, Danny - this senior bunch is a big part of my life and a big reason why I'm out here playing today. They motivate me every day in practice and it feels great to be able to keep their season alive and have Danny finish it in overtime."

With Toms River North riding high from Nagle's equalizer in the final two minutes, the Mariners did not let that momentum go to waste. In the first minute of overtime, senior Parker Nickelsen won the ball on the right side for classmate Ali Baish, who slid it to junior Mattia Assante in the middle. Assante swung it to Moreno on the left side and the senior took on a defender and ripped a left-footed shot from the left angle to end the game.

"I had a lot of emotions going into overtime because I kicked the ball out and gave them (Southern) the chance to score and take the lead," Moreno said. "I put the blame on myself but then I realized we have five minutes left and I just kept running and kept looking for an opportunity.

"We have an amazing midfield and I saw Mattia, he played me in perfectly. I had a chance and the magic happened."

In addition to revealing his throw-in prowess, Moreno also put his goal-scoring ability on display for the first time this season. Moreno entered the season as a returning starting center back but a bout with a midseason illness limited his endurance and availability. Over the final two weeks of the season, Mahon gave his versatile senior minutes up top to see if he could use his bursts of energy to create scoring chances.

Through 80 minutes Saturday, Moreno had earned himself opportunities over the past several games but could not quite finish. In the final seconds of the 2020 season and of the careers of Moreno and his classmates, the move finally paid off.

"I just played defense because that's where coach (Mahon) wanted me," Moreno said. "I guess I played well there because coach kept playing me. I started at left back, then I went to center back and I ended up at striker. I don't know how that happens, but growing up playing soccer, I have always been able to play anywhere anybody's wanted me to play."

"Danny has had such a tough year," Mahon said. "He was my starting center back and he became ill and he missed like three weeks and he could barely play 15 minutes at a time. For him to be able to set the boy up and put it on his left foot, I was just so happy for him, because he has had a lot of adversity this year. For us to be able to do what we did without him is huge because he is probably one of the best center backs in the Shore."

After winning the South Jersey Group IV title as a No. 16 seed a year ago, Toms River North completed its second straight sectional-championship run, but this time with the bulls-eye that comes with being the No. 1 seed.

As far as the Mariners were concerned, it was Southern wearing the bulls-eye after the Rams beat Toms River North on the Mariners' home field in overtime, 4-3, on Nov. 9 and came back to salvage a tie when the teams met five days later in Manahawkin.

"Losing here in overtime the first time, it left a sour taste in our mouth. We didn't like it," Nagle said. "We went to their place and tied and we knew we had to get even with them. What better way than to win it here in overtime on our home turf in the state sectional?"

Southern's brilliant senior center midfielder Kevin Kiernan broke Toms River North's collective heart in both regular-season meetings with two goals in each game and up until the final two minutes, it appeared as though Kiernan had done it again. The Shore's leading scorer skied over the Mariners defense to head in senior Brandon Notte's free kick, tying the game at 1-1 in the 56th minute.

In the 74th, Southern finally earned its first corner kick of the game and Notte and Kiernan again made the most of the opportunity. Notte served the ball low and Kiernan beat Toms River North junior goalkeeper Dawson Kaniuk to it with a header that just barely cleared the line before it was kicked away. The center official conferred with the linesman and confirmed the goal, officially giving Southern a 2-1 lead with 6:25 left in regulation.

"He was a thorn in our side every game," Mahon said of Kiernan. "The ball always seems to find him, but he reads the game so well, that he is always anticipating. He is never reactive because he knows where the play is going. You can't follow the ball, you have to stay with him. We try to man-mark him, but he always finds a way. He's a special player."

With his two goals on Saturday, Kiernan finishes with 27 for the season to go with nine assists. He scored six goals in three games vs. rival Toms River North, scored five in three state tournament matches and scored in all but one of Southern's 17 games during the course of the entire season.

"The kid is phenomenal," Southern coach Guy Lockwood said. "He has a great future ahead of him. He is just is way ahead up in the mind. We could see his brilliance as a sophomore. He is spectacular. He can change the game for you in a heartbeat and the way the guys play off of him is fantastic as well because they are very confident he'll put them in the right spot to do something with it."

"He is easily the best player I have ever played against," Moreno said. "He is insane. He is technical everywhere. He can pass, shoot, he is good in the air - which is insane. Jake Nagle did a great job trying to stay with him but he still got us. Kevin is a great player and I think he's the kind of player I would love to play with."

In addition to dodging some near misses from Kiernan earlier in the match, Toms River North made sure the rest of the Rams did not cash in on any opportunities. With the score still 1-0 in favor of Toms River North during the second half, Kaniuk saved a clean look by senior Jack Pleyn - who recorded a quarterfinal-round hat trick vs. Manalapan - on a counter-attack.

Kaniuk also fought through a hoard of bodies to fall on a ball that hit the left post out of a scrum inside the box, keeping the score at 1-1 just minutes after Kiernan had tied the game.

Toms River North jumped on top in the ninth minute with a clinical combination and finish by Baish. Sophomore Matt Bozicev started it by winning the ball and sliding it to Assante, who played a one-two with Baish. Assante then swung the ball over to Nickelsen, who chipped a diagonal pass over the defense that landed right at the feet of Baish, who finished the play with the game's first goal.

"That first goal was huge but we knew it was early on and we still had 70 minutes to play," Nickelsen said. "It was almost a dangerous goal to score because we knew we were going to have to fight through 70 more minutes. Every goal meant so much to everybody on the field. Everyone wanted this."

Saturday's game played out a lot like the two regular-season meetings did, with Toms River North asserting itself early in the game and Southern coming on strong in the second half. The shot count was 3-3 at halftime and after Kiernan's go-ahead goal, Southern owned an 8-4 edge. With its frantic final seven-plus minutes, Toms River North overtook Southern on shots, 9-8.

In three matches this season, Toms River North and Southern each scored nine goals over the three games - all of which went to overtime. With Saturday's Toms River North win, each team won a game vs. the other and the other match finished in a 3-3 draw, with the three meetings featuring a total of five lead changes.

Danny Moreno (16), Jake Nagle (15) and Parker Nickelsen (right) celebrate Toms River North's sectional championship. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"We had it with two minutes left and they score right before the end of the match and do a great job riding that momentum," Lockwood said. "Maybe it was meant to be. Right around the midway point of the season, we saw that it was going to be North and Southern and we saw those two matches at the end of the year, so it's actually pretty great that the aggregate came out neutral, but unfortunately that meant they were better than us by a goal today."

It was a memorable finish for two senior-led teams that were elated to have a chance to showcase the strength of their programs in 2020, during which neither team had a game canceled do to COVID-19 protocol.

"To go 14-2-1 playing in A South and Group IV where anything can happen is a great run," said Lockwood, whose team won a share of first place in Class A South for the first time since 1989, when Lockwood was a senior at Southern. "They also dodged this virus too, and I'm very proud of them for that. We talked about safety because we didn't want our season shut down or cut short because of anything unexpected. These guys wanted this really bad and that showed today."

"I meant so much because of all the work we put in over the summer," Baish said. "We couldn't see our coach, we didn't know if we were going to have the season but we just worked and worked and worked. To see it all pay off is so worth it. It feels so good."

Box Score

Toms River North 3, Southern 2

12OTF
Southern (14-2-1)0200
TR North (15-1-1)1110

Goals (Assists): (S) Kevin Kiernan (Brandon Notte) 56', Kevin Kiernan (Brandon Notte) 74'; (TRN) Ali Baish (Parker Nickelsen) 9', Jack Nagle 79', Danny Moreno (Mattia Assante) 81'
Shots: Toms River North, 9-8
Saves: (S) Nathaniel Bott 3; (TRN) Dawson Kaniuk 4
Corners: Toms River North, 4-1