UNION TWP. - Three years ago, Holmdel senior Joe Arena had to make a decision that most talented young soccer players in the U.S. have to in today's world: play academy or play high school?

The academy ranks are considered the safer route for players of Arena's caliber to land a college scholarship but following that path would mean going against every instinct Arena felt up until that point.

When his teammates sprinted toward the Holmdel student section after the final whistle in the Hornets' 3-1 win over Glen Rock in Saturday's NJSIAA Group II championship, Arena stayed behind to share a moment with his head coach, John Nacarlo. It was Arena's way of showing that he indeed made the right decision.

"Freshman year and sophomore year, I was debating whether to play academy or not and (Coach John Nacarlo) was 100 percent the reason I played because I love high school soccer and I love playing for him," Arena said. "Last year was a special moment to walk off champs and in my senior year, for it to happen again, is just unbelievable."

Photo by Paula Lopez
Photo by Paula Lopez

Senior Mark McStay scored the go-ahead goal in the 64th minute and senior Anthony Arena added a capper in the 76th to sew up a win over previously-unbeaten Glen Rock, complete and unbeaten season and likely cement its spot as the No. 1 team in N.J. by way of the NJ.com rankings.

McStay scored the winner by heading in a long free kick from senior outside back Jack Russo. The senior midfielder - who was a key contributor off the bench as a junior last year - elevated over a defender and knocked the ball inside the left post to break the deadlock.

"Our whole motto is ‘Leave your legacy,’" McStay said. "Coach (John Nacarlo) has been talking about this all year. Leave your legacy is basically what we did tonight. We left as a state champion, we left as number one in the state, which no Holmdel team has ever done. It’s just awesome."

The assist was a noteworthy one for Russo, who logged at least one assist in each of Holmdel's six postseason wins from his outside back position. The St. John's commit finished with six goals and eight assists for the season.

Joe Arena later set up his cousin, Anthony, by playing him short on a free kick and watching the reigning Shore Sports Network Player of the Year unleash a 23-yard strike to the left side of the net for the clincher.

Anthony Arena's goal was a fitting way to cap Holmdel's scoring on Saturday. The senior has totaled a school-record 65 goals during his three-year high school career and after just missing on multiple chances through the course of the game, he did not miss his last chance.

"We know he is always ready to play no matter what," junior Jack Giamanco said. "Maybe some jitters at the beginning of the game but we knew as long as we worked hard, we would get one and he would probably get one."

Holmdel fell into a 1-0 hole in the 32nd minute when sophomore Jason Kapiloff took the ball away from Holmdel defender Peter Vassilakos and goalkeeper Jack Murray after a miscommunication between the two and scored to stun Holmdel into a one-goal deficit. Prior to that shot, the Hornets owned a 9-1 edge in shots.

"(Arena) missed the breakaway, Jack (Giamanco) had the header, we hit a couple posts and then giving up the goal we gave up, it was like ‘What’s going on here?,'" Nacarlo said.

Giamanco answered with the equalizer just 4:19 later, poking the ball in after Anthony Arena played him through down the middle of the field. The goal was the team-leading 23rd of the season for Giamanco, who played sparingly as a sophomore last year.

"We know the way we play soccer, sooner or later, it’s going to go in the net," Giamanco said. "As soon as the ball went their way, we knew one was going to go our way so we kept working hard and when we tied the game up, we knew we were going to win the game."

"He puts himself in positions where he is going to bury the ball," Nacarlo said of Giamanco. "(Anthony Arena) had the assist and it was good for him to find Jack’s feet, he kept his composure and he was able to find the back of the net.

Murray came through later in the half with a kick save on a point-blank chance by Kapiloff inside the six-yard box to preserve the 1-1 tie at the break.

"Murray came up with a huge save and I thought that was a big turning point to get us to the half tied," Nacarlo said. "We had a little bit of wind at our backs in the second half and we wanted to take advantage of that."

Holmdel opened fast and nearly took a 1-0 lead in the first 1:30. Arena cleared the back line for a breakaway but keeper Noah Beverin booted it away with a kick save.

Minutes later, Arena served a pinpoint cross to the back left post and Giamanco squared up a header that hit the left post. Giamanco also missed a chip over Beverin before breaking the seal in the 36th.

"We had three or four chances early that were big chances. Anthony had the one breakaway where the keeper came up with a ginormous save, just like Murray did for us later," McStay said. "We did leave the door open and they got a lucky one, but they shut down long enough for us to come right back and tie it."

The Hornets also caught a break when it appeared senior center back Torre Avitabile fell to the turf and touched the ball with his hand inside the 18-yard box with the score still 0-0 in the 15th. The officials did not see a handball and allowed play to continue.

With its win on Saturday, Holmdel capped a season in which it outscored its opponents by a total of 88-12 and suffered the only blemish on its record when it lost to Ocean on penalties in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals. Over the last two seasons, the Hornets went a combined 44-1-2 with 210 goals scored against just 26 allowed.

"Last year was an unbelievable team," said Joe Arena, who along with Anthony, was a ball boy for Holmdel's 2010 Group III championship team. "I didn’t think this team was going to be that successful. I’m so proud of this group of guys. We worked so hard to get to where we are and yeah, it’s a little more surprising but that almost makes it feel better than last year."

The comparisons between this year's team and last year's are likely to continue for some time and choosing between the two for Nacarlo would be like choosing between children. The 2017 Holmdel team finished 22-1-1, won the Shore Conference Tournament and Group II titles and outscored opponents 122-14 on the way to a No. 4 finish in the state. This year's team came up short of a second SCT title, but completed an unbeaten season and is likely to claim the No. 1 ranking in the state.

Where this team has 2017 beat is the sentimentality of the seniors - especially Joe Arena and Avitabile - riding off into the sunset. Those two were the only two four-year starters on this year's team and they wrapped up their careers with two state championships in three title-game appearances, as well as a Shore Conference Tournament title last year.

"It’s special because I have had a close relationship with a lot of these kids since they were younger," Nacarlo said. "I trained them, I taught them when they were in elementary school. I love these boys. We are a family and to see them go out the way they did was amazing."

Box Score

Holmdel 3, Glen Rock 1

Holmdel (22-0-1)123
Glen Rock (23-1-1)101

Goals (Assists): (H) Jack Giamanco (Anthony Arena) 36', Mark McStay (Jack Russo) 66', Anthony Arena (Joe Arena) 76'; (GR) Jason Kapiloff 32'
Shots: Holmdel, 19-6
Saves: (H) Jack Murray 2; (GR) Noah Beverin 8


More From Shore Sports Network