MARLBORO - Long Branch boys soccer coach Adrian Castro woke up Tuesday morning laid-up in a hospital bed, a far cry from the sideline he would gingerly pace later that evening at Marlboro Middle School.

With three fractured ribs and a collapsed lung that he suffered while playing in a men's soccer league over the weekend, Castro wasn't sure he would make his team's game but he knew his intention.

Win or lose, he wanted to be there to watch his team continue its transformation into one of the Shore's best and for his efforts, the Green Wave gave him a proverbial morphine shot.

Brian Completo and Victor Pessoa (5) celebrate Long Branch's win over Marlboro. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Brian Completo and Victor Pessoa (5) celebrate Long Branch's win over Marlboro. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Juniors Brian Completo and Jason Laviola both scored in the final nine minutes and Long Branch - the No. 13 seed in the Central Jersey Group IV section - rallied to upset top-seeded Marlboro, 2-1, and advance to the sectional final Friday at second-seeded Hunterdon Central.

"They want to see me out here with them and I want to be here to see them," Castro said. "What's better than this? It was less about me being here for them and more about being here to see them accomplish something special. So I just kicked back, let my assistant (Tim Farrell) handle most of the responsibilities and just tried to be supportive."

Long Branch is playing in a Group IV sectional final just three years after moving up to the state's largest classification and two years after joining the Shore Conference's Class A North - annually the most competitive in the conference.

The trip to the sectional final round is Long Branch's first since 2012, when the Green Wave were in Group II and in Castro's first year as head coach. Long Branch lost that championship game to Holmdel.

"I definitely couldn't have seen this coming at the beginning of the season, but seeing the work and the progress during the season has been incredible," Laviola said. "Seeing the boys get better and better and to start to win games like we have and beat some of the teams we have has been amazing to watch and to be a part of."

For the second time this season, Long Branch found itself in a 1-0 hole vs. Marlboro in the first half - a script similar to the one that played out when the two teams met on Oct. 17 in a Class A North divisional game. Senior Mitchell Katsman ripped home a shot off a failed clearance in the 32nd minute to open the scoring and the Mustangs took a 1-0 lead into halftime.

Long Branch rallied to beat Marlboro, 3-1, a little fewer than two weeks ago after falling behind by a goal thanks, in large part, to a red card when the score was still tied at 1-1 early in the second half. There would be no red card to bail the Green Wave out but Long Branch did its part by controlling possession and manufacturing chances leading up to the final, deciding 10 minutes.

"It was a slow start, honestly - kind of like the beginning of our season," Laviola said. "A halftime speech does a lot. I think it gave us hope and I think it gave us energy and helped us come out strong in the second half. We knew we could do it, just like last time."

In the 71st, senior Eryck Lazo dribbled into the middle of the defense and had the ball knocked away. Completo tracked it down, split two defenders and uncorked a left-footed strike that curled away from diving Marlboro goalkeeper Nick Tango and tucked into the far right corner of the goal for the equalizer.

"Completo is our center back and I told him before the game, 'If we are down in the game, you're going up at some point,'" Castro said. "He's athletic and he does it in practice. He always tells me to put him up top and I tell him, 'Your time will come.' His time came today."

Long Branch completed its comeback in the 78th on a counter-attack. Senior forward and leading scorer Patrick O'Dwyer took a pass from Lazo and skipped a shot on goal that Tango blocked. Lazo charged for the rebound but whiffed on a follow-up attempt.

The ball, however, rolled right to Laviola, who calmly poked it into the lower left of the goal from eight yards out to vault Long Branch into the lead.

The goal was Laviola's first of the season and accompanies his seven assists from his center midfield position.

"He is another guy I have been telling, 'Your time is going to come,'" Castro said. "You see him out there. He runs our midfield and he is all over the place for us, but he wants that goal. Today was his moment."

"It's a crazy way to score my first goal - putting my team in a championship game" Laviola said.

Long Branch's transformation from an inconsistent team that began the season with an ugly first-three games to a team on the brink of a championship in one of the state's toughest sections is part of a two-year process. Last year, the Green Wave finished 8-8-1 but failed to qualify for both the Shore Conference Tournament and Central Jersey Group IV Tournament while playing in Class A North for the first time.

"Seeing better competition over the last two years really taught us how to play at that level," Laviola said. "How to move off the ball and play physical - stuff like that. Kids on those teams that we play all do those things and we're starting to become one of those teams now."

As usual, Castro set up scrimmages against traditionally strong Group IV programs like Kearny and Newark East Side to go with regular-season tests against Elizabeth, Southern and Ocean on top of the difficult A North schedule. The payoff did not come early on, as the Green Wave opened the season with two losses to teams with losing records (Red Bank and Middletown North) and a draw against Matawan.

The season turned for the Green Wave when it knocked off Christian Brothers Academy, 1-0, at home for its first win of the season. Long Branch went on to rally for a spot in the Shore Conference Tournament, qualify for the NJSIAA Tournament and finished tied for second in Class A South with Marlboro - behind Freehold Township and ahead of CBA in the table.

"Six of these guys were here last year, so they knew what this year was going to be like," Castro said. "We're in A North. There is no sleeping. Every game, top-to-bottom, we have to step up. It's made us a better team. It's made us better when we go out of division, it's made the practices better. Everything is at another level from where it was last year and two years ago."

While that all marks a significant amount of progress for a junior-heavy Green Wave side, it does not yet include a championship. Long Branch will try to change that when it travels to Hunterdon Central to play a Red Devils program that has won three sectional championships in the past nine seasons.

After already beating Shore Conference Tournament champion Freehold Township, 2017 sectional champion Princeton and top-seeded Marlboro in the state tournament, the Wave are welcoming the challenge.

"There are going to be different tactics, for sure," Castro said. "We're going to watch film on them to figure out the best way to go about it. It's a final so a mistake here and a mistake there makes the difference. Anything can happen, but we are ready. Win or lose, we're in it, we're happy and we're going for it. We have nothing to lose."