PENNINGTON, N.J. - During the three days leading up to their NJSIAA Group II semifinal showdown against Delran, the Holmdel boys soccer players heard all about how physical the Bears - the No. 5 team in the latest statewide rankings - were and how it would be a game unlike any the Hornets have played this year.

Tuesday at Hopewell Valley High School, it was Holmdel - the No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and the No. 10 team in the state - that won the physical battle and, in turn, one of the state's most anticipated game of the season.

The Hornets bounced back from an early deficit, scored three times in a span of 6:03 during the first and second halves and notched a resounding 3-1 win over Delran to advance to the Group II championship game Sunday against Dover at Kean University.

"We are always (physical)," said Holmdel junior Anthony Arena, who was right in the middle of all three of his team's goals again on Tuesday. "We are a very chippy team and we're definitely bigger than we show. Especially all of our midfielders - they are stronger than everybody thinks. Big guys think that they can just come in and walk all over us small guys, but that's obviously not the case."

The win not only sends Holmdel to its fifth ever group championship game and second in the last three years; it is also the 200th win in the head coaching career of Hornets coach John Nacarlo. In addition to Tuesday's win being a milestone, it is also arguably the most significant during a 15-year tenure that includes an overall Group III championship and six sectional championships.

"We've got to enjoy this win tonight," Nacarlo said. "One of the boys mentioned to me, 'How come there's no trophy for winning this game?' The reward is you beat a great team and now you get to play for a state championship on Sunday. It doesn't get much better than that."

Delran entered Tuesday the more battle-tested team and proved it with a barrage during the first five minutes of the game. The Bears - who have played the likes of St. Benedict's (loss), Delbarton (draw), Pennington (win) and Rancocas Valley (split in two matches) - unleashed two shots on goal in the first 4:17 of the match and the second one connected. Junior Chris Hunt back-heeled a low corner kick by junior Mark Olivo to an open senior Scott Woodington, who settled the ball and knocked it inside the near post for the game's first score.

Woodington's goal game shortly after Holmdel senior keeper Matt Lionette made the first of his two saves, this time denying junior Jason Vandermark on a counter-attack with one defender on his hip.

After the strong first five minutes from Delran, the Hornets asserted themselves and dominated until Delran pushed forward out of desperation over the final 15 minutes. Holmdel built up possession over the course of the first half, but it did not manifest itself into a goal initially.

That changed in the 38th minute, when Arena chased down a long pass from the back and turned the corner along the end-line on the left side of the field. He slid a pass across the box and after missing on an initial attempt, junior Mark McStay collected his own rebounds and slammed in a point-blank shot to tie the score with just 2:26 remaining before halftime.

"That powered us to a great start to the second half," Arena said. "It got our attention back and it sunk the other team to where they came out a little flat in the second half."

With a score just before the half to pull even, Holmdel returned to play in the second half with even more confidence, while Delran found itself reeling. Just 1:46 into the second half, Holmdel had its first lead of the game.

Senior Mikey Neff played a ball over a line of Delran midfielders and it took a bounce through the defense, right to the run of Arena. The junior striker took a touch toward the goal and ripped a shot off the back right corner post to give the Hornets the lead for good.

With the momentum fully on its side, Holmdel had one more scoring highlight to add. Arena once again started the play with a corner kick that found senior Cyrus Darvish, who knocked it in the direction of the goal. The ball then found its way to the feet of senior Matt Leon, who pounded it into the goal 3:37 into the half, giving the Hornets three goals in 6:03 of game time.

"It clicked," Lionette said. "everything just clicked. We're not a tram that likes to be down, we're not a team that is comfortable losing, so when we fall behind, it gets our attention. It's happened a few times this year, and we've learned how to respond."

It more than 20 minutes for Delran to recover and start to build a real scoring threat again, but once the Bears did, they put a scare into Holmdel while showing why they have been regarded as one of the state's best teams all year. Their best chance came in the 77th, when leading scorer John Strohlein turned and fired a short-range shot toward the near post. Lionette, however, was up to the task and he pushed the shot to the outside of the post. The Bears forced the ball back in front of the goal on the ensuing corner kick, but the Holmdel defense managed to clear it away.

With his team playing in so many one-sided games this year, Lionette has not had to work for a win like he did on Tuesday. Although he made only two saves, both were dangerous shots and he also directed traffic and worked the airspace in the box.

"Not like this," Nacarlo said when asked it Lionette had made more of an impact on a game than he did on Tuesday. "He came up huge a few times. Making saves, just parrying the ball past the post. That's what a great goalkeeper does. They have to make a couple of great saves to keep their team in it and that's what he did today."

With Tuesday's win, Holmdel is now 3-0-2 against Delran in NJSIAA Tournament games over the last six years. The lone time Delran advanced past Holmdel was a shootout win after a scoreless draw in the 2013 Central Jersey Group II semifinals. Holmdel also beat Delran in the 2015 Group II semifinals.

Although defeating Delran is an accomplishment to remember, Holmdel is still one win from an overall state title - a win that has eluded the Hornets the last three times they have reached the championship game. In 2015, Holmdel was less than three minutes from winning a title when it let the game slip away by allowing two goals in the final. 2:30 of the game to drop a 2-1 decision to Garfield.

For the players who were there or have at least heard the horror stories of that loss, there is no overlooking a championship game, no matter how satisfying Tuesday's win might have been.

"It feels the same," senior Justin McStay said, comparing 2015 to this year. "We beat Delran in the semifinals that year too. The difference is, this year, we're a better team. A better team with better players, so I think that gives us a chance."

"My motivation is to get our team up in the gym at school," Lionette said. "The 2010 team that one it, all of their names are up in the gym and we're one win away from that. That's something I've been saying I want to do from day one and now that that's only one game away, we're going to give it everything we have."


Box Score

Holmdel 3, Delran 1

Holmdel (21-1-1)123
Delran (19-4-2)101

Goals (Assists): (H) Mark McStay 38', Anthony Arena (Mikey Neff) 42', Matt Leon (Cyrus Darvish) 44'; (D) Scott Woodington (Chris Hunt) 5'
Shots: Holmdel, 12-8
Saves: (H) Matt Lionette 2; (D) Berkant Haliloglu 3


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