UNION TWP. - Justin McStay, Mikey Neff and Joe Arena all felt a familiar rush getting off the bus on the campus of Kean University Sunday for the NJSIAA Group II championship game against Dover.

The feeling after the game, however, was a much different, much better feeling.

Playing in the Group II final for the second time in three years, McStay, Neff and Arena each scored a goal and the Hornets capped their best season in school history by beating Dover, 4-1, to win the program's first NJSIAA Group championship since 2010 and second overall.

"Our motto all year was 'Bring it Back,'" Neff said. "We came into the season wanting to win everything and to get here and win this last game."

Photo by Matt Manley
Photo by Matt Manley

The Holmdel trio and junior teammate Torre Avitabile were starters on the 2015 team that reached the Group II final at Kean and took a 1-0 lead on Garfield into the final three minutes, only to see it disappear over the final 2:30 minutes in a crushing 2-1 loss. McStay opted not to play high school soccer last year, but he returned this season to reunite with Arena, Neff and Avitabile to finish the job this year.

"As soon as we got here, we parked the bus, we saw the field, and it all came rushing back," Arena said. "Unfortunately, we remembered giving up the two goals in the last two minutes, but now it's going to be a totally different memory. I think the reason you saw me, Mikey and Justin show up was because we wanted to make up for that so much."

Sunday's performance fell in line with Holmdel's play throughout the season, during  which the Hornets outscored opponents 122-14. What made Sunday unique is they racked up four goals without junior forward and leading scorer Anthony Arena scoring any of them. Arena entered the game with 35 goals and 24 assists and Dover committed to shadowing him early on.

"Anthony struggled a little bit today, but he contributed however he could and we have a lot of other weapons we can use," Holmdel coach John Nacarlo said. "If one guy is off, kids step up and that's what we did today."

That left space to operate for the rest of the team and Neff and McStay were the first to take advantage. Junior Mark McStay slid a corner kick over to Neff who touched it toward the goal and unleashed a 25-yard strike that knuckled just under the bar inside the far post in the 15th minute.

Neff's goal came seven minutes after Arena got his best chance of the game, a 10-yard rocket from directly in front off the goal that Dover goalkeeper David Hoyt saved.

Hoyt also saved a shot by Neff in the first two minutes that was nearly identical to the goal he scored.

"Anytime I get space from 25 yards out, I'm letting it pop," said Neff, who has nine goals from his left outside fullback spot. "My shot usually knuckles and when there is some wind, it can make it hard to read."

Once Neff established himself coming out of the back to go along with the threat of Arena, Justin McStay went to work. He ran onto a through-ball from Anthony Arena, cut it back and got it to senior Matt Leon, who took his time before ripping a shot past Hoyt from six yards out.

Holmdel got a big defensive play from junior Jack Russo in the final seconds of the half. Dover senior Sebastian Montoya knocked the ball past Holmdel keeper Matt Lionette and it trickled toward the goal as the final seconds ticked away. Russo bolted in from the left side of the field and cleared it away with one second left on the clock, preserving the 2-0 lead at halftime.

Dover made a push for a goal to open the half, but the Hornets quickly regained control of the game and added their third goal in the 56th. Justin McStay played a combination with Anthony Arena and after getting the ball back on the right side of the goal, he finished to the far left side netting.

The goal was just part of an all-around performance from McStay, who defended the air on corner kicks, checked into the midfield, set up chances for teammates and won 50-50 ball on top of 50-50 ball. Two years after sparking the Hornets to a surprise run to the Group II final, McStay returned and finished off this year's run with one of his best efforts.

"I wasn't losing today," McStay said. "I wasn't having it, not in my last game. Whatever it took to get the win today, I was going to do."

"He has 26 goals now, which would be the school record if Anthony Arena didn't score 34 this year," Nacarlo said. "But it's all the other stuff he does that gets overlooked because he scores a ton of goals. What he does defensively, on free kicks, winning balls - he does everything you need to win and he never complains."

Joe Arena took control of the midfield during the first half and finished off his strong championship performance with a goal in the 72nd. He picked off a pass and pulled up for a 20-yard strike to make it 4-0.

"I was so happy to see Joe Arena score that goal," Nacarlo said. "If anybody deserved that goal, it was him. He's been our heart and soul all year and he's had some trouble putting the ball in the net, so for him to finish off the season like that is fitting."

Arena's goal was only his fourth of the year, but he has been the heart of Holmdel's formation at the defensive center midfield spot. He has also been playing through a hamstring injury since the sectional final against Monmouth Regional.

"I took three Advil before the game," Arena said.  "I've been able to manage it, for the most part. There was no way I wasn't going to play these games."

Dover got on the board in the 76th on a penalty kick by Brian Canales after a takedown in the box. Outside of the penalty kick, Holmdel withstood the pressure and ran out the clock to begin the celebration.

With Sunday's win, Holmdel matches the 2010 team - which finished 22-1 - with a school-record 22 wins. This year's team was the first in program history to win the Shore Conference Tournament, which went along with an unbeaten season in Class A Central.

The only blemishes on Holmdel's resume this year were a 1-0 loss at Pingry during the regular season and a penalty-kicks win over Matawan in the Central Jersey Group II semifinals that goes down as a draw in the standings.

While it has been seven years and three championship-game losses between group titles for Holmdel, the Hornets were also the last Shore Conference public school team to win an overall group title. Toms River South is the last public school team from the Shore outside of Holmdel to win a group championship, taking home the 2009 Group IV championship.

Holmdel is gave the Shore Conference a one-loss, group champion for a second straight year. Last year's CBA team went 24-1 and won both the Shore Conference and Non-Public A Tournaments.

After another dominant performance Sunday, Holmdel's 2017 team injected itself into the conversation with some of the best Shore teams of all time.

"It's the best feeling in the world playing on this team with these guys," Justin McStay said. "Even if we lost today, I still would have got something special out of this team. We became brothers this year and winning a state championship just makes it even better."


Box Score

Holmdel 4, Dover 1

Dover (21-3-1)011
Holmdel (22-1-1)224

Goals (Assists): (D) Brian Canales (PK) 76'; (H) Mikey Neff (Mark McStay) 15', Matt Leon (Justin McStay) 28', Justin McStay (Anthony Arena) 56', Joe Arena 72'
Shots: Holmdel, 15-5
Saves: (D) David Hoyt 4; (H) Matt Lionette 1


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