Boys Soccer – Group II and III Semifinal Preview
NJSIAA Group Semifinals
Tuesday, Nov. 14
At Toms River North
Toms River South (17-5-2) vs. Mainland (19-2-2), 7:30 p.m.
For the second straight year, Toms River North will play host to a Group III semifinal between Toms River South and Mainland, with the Indians seeking to beat the Mustangs for a second straight year to reach the final for a third straight year. Toms River South benefited from a rematch against Ocean in the Central Jersey final after losing to the Spartans in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals, and now Mainland will try to steal a page from that playbook.
After losing to the Indians, 2-1, in last year's game at Toms River North, Mainland returns a team on a mission. The Mustangs are a win away from their 20th of the season, which includes a 13-game winning streak following a 2-1-1 start. After tying Egg Harbor and dropping a 1-0 decision to South Jersey Group IV champion Washington Township right before the tournament, Mainland has recovered to win three state playoff games by a combined scored of 18-3.
Junior Jack Sarkos leads the Mustangs into battle with his 26 goals and eight assists, while senior Keegan Ford has six goals and 14 assists to his credit this year. Ford assisted a goal by Victor Figueroa four minutes into last year's match to give Mainland a 1-0 lead before Dylan Danelson and Jack Seitz scored three minutes apart to give Toms River South the lead for good.
Speaking of Seitz, the junior scored 1:07 into the sectional final against Ocean on Friday to open the scoring before senior Dustin Urbaczek scored the winner in the 62nd. Sophomore Shane Kluxen continued his breakout postseason by assisting both goals.
While Toms River South seeks its third straight title game appearance after losing in the last two, Mainland is motivated to reach the championship game for the first time ever with a team that has performed as well, or better, than any in program history. It's hard to go against South in a big game, but it looks like Mainland's turn.
The Pick: Mainland, 1-0
At Hopewell Valley
Holmdel (20-1-1) vs. Delran (19-3-2), 7:30 p.m.
Holmdel and Delran are separated by nearly 60 miles, but there is a rivalry element to this game, not only because they met four years in a row in the NJSIAA Tournament, but also because one has been hearing about how good the other is all season long. Now that both wrapped up sectional championships in convincing fashion, it's time for the two teams to settle things on the field.
It's safe to say Holmdel has had Delran's number during the NJSIAA tournament, with the Hornets owning a 2-0-2 edge over the Bears - with the two teams meeting each year in the Group II tournament from 2012 to 2015. Delran has only gotten the better of Holmdel one time, which was a shootout victory at Holmdel in the 2013 Central Jersey Group II semifinals.
Holmdel won a shootout in the 2014 sectional quarterfinals at Delran as a No. 7 seed when the Bears were No. 2. The other two wins were straight-up victories for the Hornets - including a 2-0 win on a neutral site in the 2015 Group II semifinals.
Tuesday's showdown will be the fifth meeting in six years between the two Group II powers and this game finds the two programs at their finest. Delran is currently ranked No. 5 in the state, according to NJ.com, and has played one of the toughest schedules of any public school team in the state. The Bears have taken on both the best overall team in the state (St. Benedict's) and the best NJSIAA Tournament eligible team (Delbarton) and even picked up a 1-1 draw against newly-crowned Non-Public A champion Delbarton.
Holmdel's schedule does not stack up to that of Delbarton, but the Hornets have dominated just about every team put in front of them. Their lone loss was a 1-0 game against Pingry, a top-10 team in the state and the draw was a penalty-kick win over Matawan in the sectional semifinals. Among Holmdel's 19 wins, only one was decided by one goal - a regular-season 2-1 win at Raritan.
With that last fact in mind, a key against the Hornets is not falling behind early. Once Holmdel gets on the board and teams have to push forward for offense, the Hornets are deadly. Anthony Arena will be among the top players Delran has seen this season and one of the reasons he is so tough to handle is that teams also have to account for Justin McStay up top. McStay burned Delran for two goals as a sophomore in the 2015 Group II semifinal, the Bears know what they are up against.
The key for Holmdel will be handling Delran's physical play in the midfield and the Bears' size on set pieces - both offensive and defensive. The scoring attack of Delran is balanced, with John Strohlein's 13 goals leading the team and Jason Vandermark (12) and Chris Hunt (11) both in double-digits as well. If Delran dominates 50-50 balls with their size and physicality, Holmdel's path to victory becomes trickier.
The Hornets will also have to work around a hamstring injury to center midfielder Joe Arena, which caused him to miss most of the sectional final against Monmouth. Coach John Nacarlo said Arena has responded well to treatment and there is a good chance he plays on Tuesday.
With Arena on the field, McStay can stay up front, which could be a major problem for Delran. Marking up one of Holmdel's two forwards is possible, but stopping both is asking a lot, unless a team can put up three goals of its own against the Hornets. Arena has showed up in the big games so far - he scored five goals in the SCT final and three in the sectional final - but this seems like a game made for McStay.
The Pick: Holmdel, 3-2