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TOMS RIVER -- Like many of his teammates, Toms River North senior Ray Keller has watched a lot of memorable, clutch moments over the last three years of championship soccer for the Mariners boys soccer program.

Before this season, however, Keller and most of his teammates weren't in-game participants in most of those moments. With Toms River North graduating 10 senior starters from its 2021 team -- which won a third straight NJSIAA sectional championship -- they have had to learn on the fly.

On Wednesday, Keller and Co. showed they are fast learners and now they are soaring toward another championship.

Keller delivered the knockout blow Wednesday in the form of a golden goal in the 17th minute of overtime as Toms River North took down Toms River East, 1-0, to remain unbeaten overall while taking over sole possession of first place in the Shore Conference Class A South standings.

"It's a little scary, it's zero-zero, but it's soccer and that's what you live for," Keller said. "You want to be on the pitch for those moments, you want to be on the ball for those moments and that's exactly the kind of team we have. We didn't get it in regular time, but there is no better feeling than winning in overtime."

For the first 96-plus minutes, Toms River North acquitted itself nicely against a Toms River East side that finished second place in the 2021 division race and brought back its top scorer, senior Kajus Matazinskas. Coming off a division win at Toms River South the previous Wednesday night, the Mariners had a chance to sweep their Toms River rivals while taking a huge step toward a third straight A South title -- the last two of which would be official.

In order to take that step, though, Toms River North had to turn its solid play into a goal -- something neither the Mariners nor their opponent could do over 80 minutes of regulation and one-and-a-half overtime sessions.

As the clock ticked under four minutes left in the second and final overtime period, Toms River North got the chance it was looking for. The Mariners earned a free kick 25 yards from the goal on the left side of the field. Keller and classmate Vin O'Donnell stood over the ball, formulated a plan and went to work on the free kick.

"I was just going to hit it at the goal," Keller said. "Vin was like, 'Me or you?' and I said 'me.' The rest is history."

O'Donnell ran over the ball and Keller followed with a low shot that skipped in front of the goal, as well as a sea of Mariners players. With Toms River East goalkeeper Bobby Calvo screened by several opposing players, the ball made its way to the far corner of the frame for the winning goal.

Calvo denied Keller a golden goal just minutes earlier with a diving save on a near-post strike. The Raiders goalkeeper came through with seven saves in the game and might have helped his team escape with a draw with one more.

Keller's goal held up thanks to another strong defensive effort by Toms River North, which kept Matazinskas and Raiders junior forward Jackson Markovitch in check by keeping four backs committed to defending while also controlling the lion's share of the possession.

Since giving up a six goals in the first two-and-a-half games, Toms River North has kept its opponents off the board for nearly 260 straight minutes -- a stretch that includes shutout victories over Toms River South, Pinelands and Toms River East.

Keller, O'Donnell, senior Kosta Papanikolas, and juniors Luke Montanile and Anthony Ruggerio are among the current players who saw some spare minutes off the bench on last year's South Jersey Group IV champion and Shore Conference Tournament runner-up. Senior Matt Bocizev, meanwhile, is the only returning starter from last year.

"We have a lot of new guys," Keller said. "We're not cocky. We know we have to get better and that's how we approach every day. There have been some games we feel shouldn't have been as close as they were, the finishing is not really there yet, so there are always improvements."

While this group has not been the dominant force the 2022 team was within Class A South, it has been a team that rises to the occasion and finds enough ways to score to win games.

"In everyone, there is a clutch moment," Keller said. "It feels like it's the luck of the draw. It's whoever has got the ball. Everyone on this team is at different levels with different experience, but we all find ways to contribute and that's what makes a good team."

Toms River North has division games remaining against Brick and at Jackson Memorial and with at least a win and a draw, the Mariners would clinch the division championship without consideration for the potential results from the rest of the A South field.

"I have been on the last two teams that won state sectionals and Boz has been on all three," Keller said. "We've experienced it and we knew coming into the season it was going to be a dog fight. Every single moment, we were going to have to win, not just with skill but with heart. We want it and if we continue to do what we have been doing, we're going to do really well this season."


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