HOLMDEL - Holmdel senior Mark Walier had big shoes to fill entering this season but they were shoes he always wanted to occupy.

Walier is now a senior captain and defensive center midfielder for the Hornets boys soccer team, a similar role played by All-American Joe Arena on last year's 22-0-1 NJSIAA Group II championship team.

"He (Joe Arena) was the kid I always wanted to be ever since I was four years old," Walier said. "He has always been a person who has pushed me. It's important for me that I follow what he does because he worked so hard for this program. Personally, I want to be just like him."

In Holmdel's season opener Tuesday vs. Middletown South, Walier did not score the goals that made the difference but like Arena, he was right in the middle of the action at the most important stretch of the game.

Walier set up an equalizer by senior Eric Hinds in the 70th minute and the winning goal by junior Tomas Zolofra in the 76th to rally the Hornets - No. 5 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - past the No. 8 Eagles, 2-1, with two goals in the last 11 minutes.

"At the end of the day, the most important thing is we're putting the ball in the back of the net and fortunately, we can still find ways to do that," Walier said. "Today wasn't our best game, but we still got it done."

Holmdel has now gone officially unbeaten in 37 straight matches dating back to the 2017 season. The Hornets lost a shootout in last year's Shore Conference Tournament semifinal during that stretch but have not been beaten straight up. Holmdel is trying to keep that streak going with a mostly-inexperienced lineup and Ron Poll taking over for 16-year head coach John Nacarlo.

Walier played outside fullback as a junior last year and is playing in the middle of the field this year with more freedom to go forward as one of Holmdel's more dangerous players.

"I'm definitely going to have a bigger role now," Walier said. "Me, Jack (Giamanco) and Eric - it's our job to lead them and continue that tradition because we have played at such a high level the last two years. Coach Poll has come in and we have done some different things but the level of soccer has stayed the same and our love for the game has stayed the same."

"Joe Arena is an outstanding kid and outstanding player and there were obviously a lot of talented guys we have to replace, but Mark Walier is that same type of guy," said Poll, who worked closely with Walier in each of the past two year's as Nacarlo's defensive tactician. "He is talented, he is driven, he is a relentless kid who is never going to give up."

Middletown South grabbed a 1-0 lead in the 65th minute when junior Matt Glynn finished a long diagonal pass from senior Danny Minze.

Holmdel answered in the 70th, with Walier beating his man up the right side and sliding a cross to the far post that found Hinds's foot. The senior took a deflected shot that went in for the equalizer.

"We knew we had to go to the leaders," Hinds said. "We had to go to the guys who have been here before and that's exactly what we did. Walier with two huge assists - you can't ask for anything more than that from your leader."

Holmdel senior Eric Hinds. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Holmdel senior Eric Hinds. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Walier again beat his man to set up the second goal, this time along the left flank and up the endline in the 75th minute. Zolofra struck the cross off goalkeeper Austin Carter and rebounded his own miss for the putback.

"All this preseason, we talked about being not only physically tough but mentally tough. We face adversity head-on. If we put a couple in the back of the net early, then perfect. If not, we are never going to quit. We could be down 4-0 in the state finals and we are never going to stop going. We got one goal, momentum was going our way. We got a second and we just carried it to the end."

Holmdel conceded the game's first goal despite controlling play for most of the 80 minutes. The Hornets were especially dominant over the first 20 minutes and although their chances dried up over the next 45 minutes, Holmdel kept Middletown South quiet until Glynn broke through.

Like Walier, Hinds was a starter on last year's unbeaten team and stepped up late after missing a chance during Holmdel's early-game flurry.

"I missed the same shot in the first half and I was beating myself up over it," Hinds said. "The ball was a little bit bouncy but it found the back of the net. Great feeling. We might not have the same talent, but we still have that same will to win."

Zolofra, meanwhile, is one of Holmdel's new starters and his goal was the first of his varsity career.

Holmdel senior Jack Giamanco was the team's leading scorer a year ago and while Middletown South kept him off the board on Tuesday, he was a menace during the first 20 minutes of the game while getting himself three quality scoring chances - the first of which was a ball cleared off the endline by a Middletown South defender 15 seconds into the match.

Giamanco also hammered the left post on a direct kick, slid an 8-year shot wide of the near post and centered the pass that set up Hinds for his first open look that he could not finish.

By game's end, the Hornets outshot Middletown South, 13-4, with a 4-2 edge in shots on goal.

Playing an Eagles team that returns all but one key member of last year's 11-10 team that notched wins over Freehold Township, Manalapan, Manasquan and Hillsborough, Holmdel worked in eight new starters around Walier, Hinds and Giamanco. The group played to mix results during the preseason, beating Ocean, 2-1, and losing to Wall and Southern by a combined score of 5-0.

When the first game that counted came along and Holmdel faced its first loss since Oct. 7, 2017, its battle-tested players rose to the occasion with a little help from the new blood.

"Everyone outside of here is going to have their own expectations for us coming into the season," Walier said. "Year-in and year-out, not matter the personnel, we start from square one every preseason and throw the expectations out the window and try to be the best team we can be. We definitely have new faces and we relied a lot on them to step up and work hard over the summer and first game you can tell that people are stepping up."

The Hornets will not get a break to continue the start of their season as they prepare for a trip to play No. 3 Freehold Township on Thursday. The Patriots were also ranked No. 15 in the NJ.com Top 20 to open the season and will be extra motivated after losing a wild, 5-4, overtime thriller at Toms River North to open the season.

"This is absolutely huge but we get one day of rest, then we get Freehold Township, who is even better," Hinds said. "We still have to figure some things out but getting this win was huge today."


Box Score

Holmdel 2, Middletown South 1

Midd. South (0-1)011
Holmdel (1-0)022

Goals (Assists): (MS) Matt Glynn (Danny Minze) 65'; (H) Eric Hinds (Mark Walier) 70', Tomas Zolofra (Mark Walier) 76'
Shots: Holmdel, 13-4
Saves: (MS) Austin Carter 3; (H) Tommy Chyzowych 1


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