Enter your number to get our free mobile app

TOMS RIVER - The ascendance of the Southern boys soccer team from irrelevance to contention in the Shore Conference Class A South standings and the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV section is littered with clutch goals by Kevin Kiernan.

Monday night, the Rams senior midfielder scored what might have been his biggest goal to move his team to the cusp of finally getting back to the very top of the division.

Kiernan scored the golden goal in the sixth minute of overtime and the Rams Southern - ranked No. 8 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - won a wild, back-and-forth classic to hand No. 2 Toms River North their first loss of 2020 and set up a winner-take-all game on Wednesday for the Class A South championship between the division's top two teams.

PHOTO GALLERY: Southern at Toms River North by Paula Lopez

Southern's Kevin Kiernan handles the ball vs. Toms River North seniors Danny Moreno (16) and Jack Montanile (17). (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The goal was the second of the game and 20th of the season for Kiernan, matching his total from his junior season and giving him the Shore Conference lead for this season. Since he arrived as an impact freshman in the fall of 2017, Southern has gotten back to winning games with Kiernan scoring big goals.

According to Kiernan, no win has been bigger and no goal has felt quite as sweet as what he and his team pulled off Monday night.

"This is at the top," Kiernan said of his moment. "This is a historic win for Southern, so for me to put the game-winning goal in is great.

"This is the biggest win in Southern's history. Have to say it. It has to be. We haven't won A South in like 30 years and we'll have a chance to do that on Wednesday."

Southern led on two other occasions in the game and also trailed by a goal at one point before eventually surviving 80 minutes against the unbeaten Mariners to force extra time. Just past the midway point of the first period of extra time, Kiernan tracked down the ball in the middle of the field heading toward the Toms River North goal. Dribbling to his left, he navigated his way to the outer perimeter of the 18-yard box and ripped a left-footed shot going against the flow of the play, tucking it into the left corner of goal for the dramatic game-winner.

"What else is more Kevin Kiernan than that?," said senior center back John Paul Prosperi, who scored the other two Southern goals. "You see Kevin cut back like that and you think, 'He is scoring.'"

The golden goal was the second of the season by Kiernan and his fifth game-winning goal. Since the beginning of Kiernan's sophomore season, Southern has won 13 matches by a margin of one goal and Kiernan has scored the deciding goal in seven of them. Going back to the past two seasons, he has also scored late equalizers in tournament games - scoring in the final 15 minutes of a state tournament game vs. Williamstown in 2018 that Southern eventually won on penalties and also scoring a game-tying goal with 10 seconds left in a Shore Conference Tournament game vs. Manasquan last year. The Rams would go on to lose a shootout in that SCT quarterfinal match.

"Phenomenal how he dealt with what he dealt with tonight," Southern coach Guy Lockwood said. "He has had guys in his year all year but these guys (Toms River North) were the closest to his level that he has seen. For him to keep his head in for that long and to keep driving was huge."

Whether or not Kiernan's declaration that Monday marked the biggest win in the history of the Southern program remains up for debate but given the dramatic nature of its finish and the impact it could end up having on Southern winning an unofficial Class A South championship (the Shore Conference has opted not to recognize division champions during the abbreviated 2020 season), Kiernan has a point. Southern has won just one division championship in the history of its program and it was in 1989, when Lockwood was a senior standout for the Rams. Southern has also reached the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals just once in its history and has never won an NJSIAA sectional championship.

While Kiernan's game-winner was the seminal moment of Monday's game, it took a lot of work and plenty of highlights to get to that point of the match. After withstanding pressure from Toms River North throughout the first half and struggling to create opportunities for itself, Southern struck first. Prosperi scored the game's first goal in the 33rd minute off a throw-in by senior Brandon Notte, which was Southern's only shot during the first half and was enough to send the Rams into the intermission with a 1-0 lead.

"Coming into this match, there was definitely a feeling that we were the underdog," Lockwood said. "North has earned that having an undefeated season. At halftime, our guys felt confident that they could continue to compete and that this wasn't going to stay one-nil. Rarely are you going to see a game with a single goal at this pace. Even giving up the two goals, this team isn't going to get down."

The deficit was the first Toms River North has faced all year. Southern, meanwhile, has trailed by two goals three different times this season - including in each of its first two wins of the season over Jackson Memorial. The other was a 3-2 loss to Brick - the Rams' lone loss of the season.

"We have lived on the edge for most of the season and it looks shaky but these kids like living on the edge like that," Lockwood said. "I'm not sure why they prefer to be that way."

After a quiet first half, Kiernan started the second half by shaking loose for two dangerous opportunities in the first 2:30 of the second half - a 14-yard shot that Mariners junior goalkeeper Dawson Kaniuk saved and a close-range header that carried just over the crossbar.

"This was definitely one of my toughest games," Kiernan said. "They clamped me up pretty good. I had my opportunities though and I was just able to capitalize on that last one."

Toms River North answered with two goals in a span of four minutes, with senior Ali Baish tying the game in the 45th off a pass from junior David Anderson, which Baish settled with his chest and volleyed out of the air with a shot on frame. Notte desperately tried to save it, but he kicked it into the top of the goal, where it was already headed.

In the 49th, Baish assisted the Mariners' second goal, heading down a free kick from senior Parker Nickelsen to set up a go-ahead goal by junior A.J. Emnace, who slammed a shot into the net from right in front of the goal.

Southern got back in the game with a penalty kick exactly 20 minutes into the second half, with Kiernan converting the penalty kick after junior Landon Beirne was tackled to the ground inside the 18-yard box. Southern then grabbed the lead back on Prosperi's second goal, which he scored in the 63rd minute off a free kick by Notte despite Mariners keeper Dawson Kaniuk getting his hands on the ball first.

"When we went down 2-1, my thought was, 'Can we stop the bleeding right here and give ourselves a chance.' Fortunately, we did and we came up with the second goal and I think that changed our outlook."

The Mariners leveled the score in the 70th when Nickelsen settled a cross from junior Mattia Assante and knocked it in. Southern's defense and sophomore goalkeeper Nathaniel Bott held off Toms River North over the final 10 minutes to make it to overtime.

After a rough offensive first half in which it was outshot 7-1, Southern found an attack to counter Toms River North's during the second half and managed to keep Toms River North's shot advantage to 11-9 during the second half and overtime.

Although Toms River North entered Monday's match one game ahead of Southern in the A South standings and is coming off a 2019 NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship, Southern has had the Mariners' number since Kiernan's freshman year in 2017. In that time, Southern is 3-0-2 against Toms River North, including a 1-0 win last year before the Mariners caught fire at the end of the season.

"North has evolved a lot since last year, more than we have I think," Lockwood said. "They play a really nice possession game and their speed is exceptional. I think we have been on a more steady, consistent track over the last four years where we haven't made that big jump but we've just gotten a little bit better each year. We still play the same style that we have played for the past few seasons. When you factor in how much they have improved since the middle of last year and you take what we have been able to do, it makes for a really competitive environment."

The two rivals are now tied in the A South standings with one game remaining against one another scheduled for Wednesday at Southern.

"You get the best of North every single time you play them," Lockwood said. "They play really well in big games and tonight was a really big game for both teams. Our guys have had their eyes on winning A South for the last few years and it's something they have wanted to do since they got here, so that's going to be a really big one for them."

"It means a lot," Prosperi said. "Now it comes down to Wednesday and it's just super emotional for us. We have played together growing up and this is what we have looked forward to for the last four years."