OAKHURST - Holmdel senior Justin McStay have heard all about the 2010 Hornets team that is currently the standard by which all other Holmdel teams are measured. That year, the Hornets went 22-1 on their way to capturing the NJSIAA Group III championship.

That state title remains the only group championship Holmdel has won, much to the chagrin of McStay. As a sophomore, he and teammates Mikey Neff, Joe Arena and Torre Avitabile were starters on a Hornets team that was just two minutes a change away from winning a Group II title.

Two years after missing an opportunity to join the heralded 2010 team in Holmdel championship lore, the 2017 version of the Hornets are now one win away from winning the one title the 2010 squad never did.

Holmdel slowly broke down Jackson Memorial over the course of the first half and early stages of the second and beat the Jaguars, 4-0, Monday at Ocean Township High School to advance to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game on Thursday night at the same location.

From left to right, Holmdel's Nick Guga, Justin McStay and Matt Leon. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
From left to right, Holmdel's Nick Guga, Justin McStay and Matt Leon. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Two Holmel teams prior to this year's team have reached the SCT final, but the 2010 team - which was upset by Toms River North in the quarterfinals - was not one of them. Thursday will also mark the first time that Holmdel - seeded No. 2 in this year's tournament - will be the better seed in the championship game. The Hornets will face No. 5 seed and host Ocean at 5 p.m.

"It's almost hard to believe," McStay said of reaching the SCT final. "We always hear how great the 2010 team was and somehow, they didn't win this tournament. Now, we're one win away from doing something that even they couldn't do. It's been a major goal of ours - to win the Shore Conference and then go win the state tournament. We're close to getting the first one, so we really want to finish it off."

It took 6:29 of game time for Holmdel to take control on the scoreboard, with junior Jack Russo connecting on a header off a diagonal cross from senior Matt Leon for the game's first goal.

Russo's strike was one of 12 first-half shots by Holmdel against a Jackson Memorial defense that limited the Hornets to shots outside the 18-yard box outside of the actual goal. The Jaguars nearly capitalized on a slip-up by Avitable and goalkeeper Matt Lionette in the back, but after picking off an errant back pass, Jackson sophomore Dan Russo fired wide of the left near post of an empty net.

"We expected they were going to try to play defensive against us and put a lot of guys behind the ball," Leon said. "The key for us was to stay within our game and just keep working hard and if we did that, the goals would come. We had Jack Russo do a great job to get his head on my ball to get us going and that really took the pressure off. Even when they were keeping us from scoring, we still had the lead."

Between Jackson Memorial's near goal and the Jaguars ability to keep Holmdel from getting off shots inside the 18-yard box, Holmdel entered the second half with a somewhat tenuous 1-0 lead despite dominating in possession and shots.

That all changed in the third minute of the second, when Neff slid the ball up to McStay, who beat a defender and knocked the ball past Jackson Memorial goalkeeper Nick Kinzler for the second Holmdel goal. The second score eliminated any opportunity for Jackson Memorial to continue to defend its goal while still hoping to mount a two-goal comeback.

According to McStay, the Jaguars abandoned that look even before the second goal.

"It looked like they came out trying to attack a little more in the second half and that really opened things up," McStay said. "They cleared a ball out in the first minute and we could see there was a lot more space, so I just looked to get the ball real quick and go at them."

With Jackson desperate to create offense, Holmdel now had more room to operate in the final third of the field and created two more goals. Leon finished the third Hornets score in the 52nd, tapping in a shot from the six-yard marker off a through-ball from junior Anthony Arena.

Sophomore Eric Hinds came off the bench to cap the scoring in the 72nd minute, hitting the far right side netting off a pass from junior Mark McStay.

Arena, the leading scorer on the Hornets with 24 goals, did not find the back of the net on Monday, but ripped two dangerous shots - one in each half - to go with his assist. He fired an 16-yard strike over the bar in the first half and after playing a combination with Justin McStay against the entire Jackson defense, he one-timed a 15-yard shot that Kinzler parried over the bar.

Cyrus Darvish (center) and Matt Leon (16) congratulate Jack Russo (15) on his first-half goal vs. Jackson Memorial. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Cyrus Darvish (center) and Matt Leon (16) congratulate Jack Russo (15) on his first-half goal vs. Jackson Memorial. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

With the score 3-0, Russo got his second chance at a goal, but Lionette made his second save of the game by make a diving stab to his lower left.

In three Shore Conference Tournament games, Holmdel has outscored its opponents by a combined score of 12-0. The Hornets scored five first-half goals Friday against a Howell team that was in the race for the Class A North public division championship until the final game of the division schedule, then put up four on Monday against a Jackson Memorial team that surrendered two goals just twice all season and never more.

"It's so much fun being a part of this team," said Leon, who along with Justin McStay and Cyrus Darvish, joined the team this year after playing academy soccer last year. "It's everything I hoped for and so much more. It's not just that we're a great team and we're winning. It's going to school with these guys and the way we get along off the field. It's just a fun group of guys."

Another experience that this Holmdel team has that the 2010 didn't: a regular-season loss. Holmdel dropped a 1-0 road match at Pingry on Oct. 6 and found itself trailing Rumson-Fair Haven, 2-1, at halftime of its next game. Since the start of the second half against the Bulldogs, the Hornets have outscored their opponents 30-0 in 11 halves of soccer. They came back to beat Rumson, 6-2.

"I'm actually happy we lost, in a way," Justin McStay said. "We were just so cocky. Just confident and cocky. A couple of the academy kids didn't know what a competitive team was going to look like because our division (games weren't) that competitive and not as good as the teams we're playing now. That game made us realize we can lose and we can get beat. We don't want that to happen again, so it helped us."

Holdmel will face Ocean on Thursday in a rematch of the 2012 championship game, which was the last time Holmdel was in a final and also the last time Ocean won an SCT championship. It is also a rematch of a Shore Conference Tournament round of 16 game last year in which No. 20 seed Holmdel routed No. 4 Ocean, 4-1.


Box Score

Holmdel 4, Jackson Memorial 0

Jackson Mem. (16-3-1)000
Holmdel (16-1)134

Goals (Assists): (H) Jack Russo (Matt Leon) 7', Justin McStay (Mikey Neff) 43', Matt Leon (Anthony Arena) 52', Eric Hinds (Mark McStay) 72'
Shots: Holmdel, 23-3
Saves: (JM) Nick Kinzler 11; (H) Matt Lionette 2


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