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WASHINGTON TWP. - The Toms River North boys soccer players walked off the field at Washington Township High School Thursday night visibly dejected and heartbroken - not unlike most teams that lose in the NJSIAA group semifinal round.

Other than that, this Toms River North squad was not like other teams.

Most teams that draw No. 16 in a given NJSIAA section don't win a game, much less win four straight road games to win a sectional title as the last seed in the tournament.

Most teams don't stare down 1-0 deficits on the road in back-to-back rounds and live to play another day.

And most teams don't land an early hay-maker against Hunterdon Central like the one the Mariners did on Thursday night, sending the Red Devils scrambling to pull even and advance to the Group IV final.

Ultimately, Hunterdon Central found a way to turn back a relentless Toms River North side, 2-1, to reach the final Sunday of the season for the second time in four years and end the Mariners' magical run through the NJSIAA Tournament, which began as the No. 16 and final seed in South Jersey Group IV.

Toms River North coach Joe Mahon speaks with his players after their 2-1 loss to Hunterdon Central. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Toms River North coach Joe Mahon (left) speaks with his players after their 2-1 loss to Hunterdon Central. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The Toms River North players left the field lamenting how close they were to a Group IV championship, but will be better remembered for how far they got despite the long odds.

"I'm overwhelmed at what we did because nobody gave us a shot," Toms River North coach Joe Mahon said. "Nobody gave us a shot today and my kids compete. My boys compete and I love them for it.

"They give you memories that last our lifetime. I'm so happy that they have those memories with their teammates, with their families, younger brothers and sisters. It's what we're trying to build in the program - being a family and keeping those memories so when they come back, it's always there. It's devastating to lose, my heart is broken for them right now, but I love them."

It took four road upsets for Toms River North to make it to Washington Township on Thursday and in order to reach Kean University for the championship game on Sunday, the Mariners had to get through their toughest test yet. Hunterdon Central entered the match as the No. 4 ranked team in N.J. by, having won 11 of its last 12 with the lone loss coming against national powerhouse St. Benedict's.

"The guys were believing," Mahon said. "It was a magical run and we were right there (tonight). I knew we would be because we always step up in these games. Against Washington Township (five years ago in the South Jersey Group IV final), we were supposed to lose 4-0 and we keep it to 1-0. We stand on our head in those difficult games."

After four straight wins on the road, Toms River North once again showed early it was not intimidated. The Mariners got right into their gameplan and it paid off a little more than six minutes into the match.

Sophomore Mattia Assante played the ball long to junior Ali Baish, only to watch the Red Devils clear the ball away. The Mariners again won the ball back on the other side of midfield and junior Danny Moreno blasted another long ball in the direction of Baish. This time, the junior battled the last defender for the loose ball and poked it past Hunterdon Central senior goalkeeper Peter Primiani for a 1-0 Mariners lead in the seventh minute.

Before Hunterdon Central found its rhythm, Baish nearly gave his team a 2-0 lead. Junior Parker Nickelsen served a corner kick into the box and after Baish lost his balance upon elevating for the ball, he knocked it on frame with his left foot, but right at Primiani.

"We were really dangerous at the beginning of the game," Mahon said. "They had problems with our speed up top. I think the first 20 minutes, we were clearly the better team - they couldn't get out, we were getting in behind them, we had opportunities. Then it started to settle in and they dropped their back line real far and we couldn't in behind them anymore. Then the game spread out, they were able to keep it, they were really tough in the air. All those things add up and are tough to overcome."

At the midway point of the first half, Hunterdon Central seized control of the game and did not relent for another 40 minutes. The onslaught paid off in the 24th when a save by Toms River North goalkeeper Dawson Kaniuk resulted in a corner kick for Hunterdon Central that led to the first goal.

Sophomore Ryan Maguire blocked a shot on goal and his clearance hit off the post to momentarily keep the Red Devils out of the net. The Central Jersey champions stayed on the offensive and after a deflected strike by junior Josh Noble, senior Brady Mullins ran down the loose ball in the box and ripped a shot toward the goal. Maguire tried to clear it away from the line with a sliding effort, but knocked the ball into the net for the equalizer.

Senior center back Ralph Russo bid for the go-ahead goal near the end of the half with a 35-yard free kick off the crossbar that carried out of play, but Russo would eventually deliver a service that did result in a goal. In the 53rd minute, Russo blasted a free kick into the box from the right sideline and the ball bounced back out toward the corner of the penalty box.

Senior Marc Costa lined up a shot and ripped a 10-yard strike to the near upper corner of the goal to give Hunterdon Central a 2-1 lead.

"We did pretty much what we wanted to do tonight," Mahon said. "They were just better than us. They found the goal, we didn't, but we went down doing what we do. We just didn't have enough today."

Hunterdon Central kept the pressure on over the ensuing five minutes and nearly came up with another goal, but a double-save by Kaniuk preserved the one-goal deficit. Kaniuk also saved a breakaway off a counter-attack in the 66th to keep his team in the game.

Toms River North had the edge in possession over the final 15 minutes while trying to equalize but managed just two shots in the second half against the Hunterdon Central defense.

The Red Devils advance to Sunday's Group IV final at Kean University, which will feature two of the top-five teams in N.J. squaring off. No. 1 Clifton topped Elizabeth in overtime to earn the other spot in the championship game.

Toms River North, meanwhile, will reflect on its memorable championship run while preparing to bring back eight starters in 2020, including its two leading scorers in Baish and Nickelsen. Midfielders Logan Mack and Jake Baurerband and center back Evan Weismar are the three senior starters who helped key this postseason run, with Baurerband and Mack each scoring two goals in the tournament.

"We had that conversation before the tournament," Mahon said. "I said, 'Look around. This team will never again be exactly how it is today. You've got to take advantage of it now.' I tell my seniors every year, 'It's you guys who are going to take us as far as we can go.' And they did. They stepped up.

"You don't want to put a damper on it and say, 'We may never get back here,' but the last time we were here was 10 years ago. Time goes by so quickly and South Jersey Group IV is such a bear that now it's just about enjoying what they did an getting back to work."

Box Score

Hunterdon Central 2, Toms River North 1

TR North (12-8-1)101
Hunterdon Central (17-4)112

Goals (Assists): (TRN) Ali Baish (Danny Moreno) 7'; (HC) Brady Mullins 24', Marc Costa (Ralph Russo) 53'
Shots: Hunterdon Central, 12-5
Saves: (TRN) Dawson Kaniuk 5; (HC) Peter Primiani 3

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