MIDDLETOWN - The last four Shore Conference Tournaments came and went without Middletown South making as much as a brief appearance in the tournament, which means Eagles seniors like Mike Zito and Brendan Magner have played their whole high school careers without playing in the conference tournament.

That wait ended Monday when the 16th-seeded Eagles hosted No. 17 Freehold Boro in the the SCT opening round and thanks to Zito and Magner, it was a triumphant return to the postseason for Middletown South soccer.

Zito scored on a rebound in the first half and Magner provided a quick answer to Freehold Boro's equalizer early in the second half as the Eagles held off the Colonials, 2-1, to advance in the SCT for the first time since reaching the semifinals in 2012.

Middletown South will travel to play top-seeded Christian Brothers Academy in Wednesday's round of 16.

Middletown South senior Mike Zito. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Middletown South senior Mike Zito. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"It's been a long time since we've played in a game like this," Zito said. "We haven't played in this tournament since we (the seniors) have been in the program and we worked hard to get here. We wanted to play our best now that we're here."

Monday also marked Middletown South's 10th win of the season, one that currently finds the Eagles in third place in the Class B North standings with one game to play. This season's success has come under the guidance of first-year head coach Rob Grella, who has made strides in his first year with a team long on returnees from 2016.

"We got together in the summer and decided this had to be our year," Magner said. "We have some talent, some seniors. We got a new coach who has brought some new energy. It's been exciting."

In their first SCT game in five years, the Eagles stormed out of the gate with a dominant first half but went to the intermission with just one goal to show for it. That goal came from Zito, who watched Freehold Boro keeper Brendan Duffy save a shot by junior Jonathan Santos and pounced on the rebound in time to knock it into the goal for the opening score exactly 22 minutes into the game.

"Those kinds of plays are huge because you never know when your opportunity is going to come," Zito said. "We had a bunch of chances in the first half and we really needed to make sure we put one in."

The Eagles had two close calls prior to that - one an unimpeded shot by sophomore Danny Minze that Duffy saved and the other a point-blank shot by Alex Sigua that took an unpredictable hop on the natural surface and caused Sigua to pop the shot over the crossbar.

Trailing by just one goal heading into the second half, Freehold Boro made up for the forgettable first 40 minutes within 30 seconds. Senior Jake Brower slipped past the back line and to a through-ball from junior Abel Herrera and stuck it to the left side netting for the equalizer 28 seconds into the half.

Two minutes later, Middletown South had an answer. Magner played a combination with Zack Oberc on the left side of the 18-yard box and rocked a shot off of Duffy and into the goal to give the Eagles the lead right back.

"When they scored, we knew we had to come right back," Magner said. "We wanted this win really badly. I know I did."

The goal was not only crucial to give Middletown South the lead, but it gave the Eagles a cushion to help stave off a furious rally by the Colonials. After being outshot 9-1 in the first half, Freehold owned a 9-2 shot advantage in the second half while attempting to rally. Brower and Herrera each hit the crossbar, Brower in the 67th minute and Herrera in the 74th.

"They started pushing numbers forward to try to get the goal and we were probably getting a little tired," Zito said. "We didn't get a lot of offense in the second half, so we did our best to just keep fighting and keep defending."

Middletown South will move on to play the No. 1 seed in the tournament and an old crosstown rival. CBA has lost only one game against a Shore Conference opponent this year, but it came in the last two weeks and it came at CBA.

"CBA is a great team," Magner said. "We're going to have to bring our A game, like we've been doing."


Box Score

Middletown South 2, Freehold Boro 1

Freehold (8-9-1)011
Midd. South (10-5-1)112

Goals (Assists): (F) Jake Brower (Abel Herrera) 41'; (MS) Mike Zito (Jonathan Santos) 22', Brendan Magner (Zack Oberc) 43'
Shots: Middletown South, 11-10
Saves: (F) Brendan Duffy 7; (MS) Ambrogio Troia


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