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MARLBORO -- Rich Yuro has been the head coach of the Howell boys soccer coach for 30 seasons and has had teams stacked with Division I talent that looked primed to win an NJSIAA sectional championship.

At 2-5 through eight games this season, the 2021 Rebels did not appear headed for the Howell history books, but a lot has changed since then. The No. 13 seed attached to the team may not scream it, but the last month has: Howell is a sectional championship contender.

Late Thursday morning, the Rebels hung through a challenging first half, broke out with three second-half goals to beat 12th-seeded Marlboro, 3-0, and advanced to the Central Jersey Group IV sectional semifinal round.

"They're feeding off each other," Yuro said. "It's a good group of guys. Any team that gets this far, no matter who you are, you have to have guys who carry each other along. Practices are good, they bust on each other and I told these guys, this is an old-school feel to this team. They have fun and they have been the kind of group where, win or lose, you enjoy them as a coach."

Senior Chris Osorio-Rodriguez lit the spark for the Rebels by burying a 25-yard direct kick in the 61st minute to open the scoring.

"We just beat the fourth seed and we lost to Marlboro earlier in the year on a silly mistake, so we knew we had a chance at this," Osorio-Rodriguez said, referencing his team's penalty-kick win over No. 4 Princeton on Monday to earn the trip to Marlboro. "We knew the way they played, so we knew we could beat Marlboro and that's what we came here to do."

Howell (10-6-1) kept its collective foot on the gas and it paid off in a second goal 38 seconds after Osorio-Rodriguez's icebreaker. Junior R.J. Eckleman drilled shot off the bottom of the crossbar and after barely missing going in, the ball rolled to junior Nick Spisak, who slammed it off a defender and into the goal for a 2-0 Howell lead.

Spisak added a second goal at the end of the 72nd minute, running onto a flicked header by junior Kris Maza into open space. Spisak outran the defense and slipped a left-footed shot into the far right corner of the goal.

"The first one, I saw (Eckleman) shoot it and just had to tap it in," Spisak said. "The second one, the defender missed, saw I knew I could just run onto it and finish it."

Maza started the season playing more in the middle of Howell's formation and his move up top six games into the season has been a key to the team's turnaround, according to Yuro.

"He is able to hold the ball and take guys on," Yuro said. "He gives us a chance to catch up to him as opposed to playing over the top and trying to chase balls down. We kind of took off from there."

Howell's scoring outburst over the 12-minute stretch of the second half came after the Rebels weathered a storm of Marlboro possession over the final 15 minutes of the second half. Although the Mustangs (7-7-2) controlled play, they did not turn that possession into a wave of shots, building a modest 4-3 advantage in attempts for the entire first half.

After the break, Howell adjusted by focusing its energy on playing direct and getting off shots. Osario-Rodriguez's goal was set up by a handball, which came after senior Andrew Louis got a clean look at the goal and fire just high of the upper right corner.

"First half, we tried to play in front and connect on passes and it just wasn't happening," Yuro said. "So we got a little more direct, put pressure on their defenders and it was going to come down to one of those free kicks. For better or worse, that is state tournament soccer. You don't play for style points."

After manufacturing three shots in the first half, Howell managed seven in the second and outshot Marlboro, 10-6.

"We realized this is states," Osorio-Rodriguez said. "Games are just more direct and more straight-forward. You have to be able to adjust and that's what we did."

Howell is now one win away from reaching the Central Jersey Group IV championship game for the first time since 2007. To get there, the Rebels will travel to play eighth-seeded West Windsor-Plainsboro South on Monday. The Pirates edged Manalapan on penalty kicks in the opening round and defeated No. 16 Sayreville to reach the bracket's final four.

The 2021 season started with optimism for a Howell team that boasted plenty of varsity experience cultivated over the past two seasons. On Sept. 29, however, the Rebels dropped a 2-1 loss to Freehold Township in which the Patriots scored in the 78th minute to pull out the victory.

The loss dropped Freehold Township to 2-5 overall and all five losses -- including one to Marlboro -- were by a margin of one goal and against teams that were seeded No. 6 or batter in the Shore Conference Tournament. Howell's other loss was a 2-1 defeat at Freehold Township in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16.

"We all knew that we made a few silly mistakes, but we were right there every game," Osorio-Rodriguez said. "Everybody still had their head up. We still had faith. We still had Shore Conference (Tournament), we still had states and even though it hadn't gone the way we wanted it to, we knew we still had a chance."

"They knew that the results didn't indicate how they were playing," Yuro said. "They just kept plugging away. It helped to have some wins mixed in there and then we went out of division and made our run. That gave us confidence and with high school kids, that's half the battle."


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