Boys Soccer – Molnar’s Golden Goal Gives Shore First Ever Group 1 Championship
SOMERSET -- Senior Maxx Eichenbaum is the Shore Regional boys soccer team's top goal scorer this season and his junior teammate, Stephen Molnar has led the Blue Devils in assists in each of the last two seasons.
With the NJSIAA Group I championship game vs. David Brearley hanging in the balance Saturday afternoon at Franklin High School, it was Eichenbaum who worked to send a cross into the box and Molnar who saw a wide-open net with a chance to finish off an unprecedented championship if he could complete the goal.
Molnar delivered, scoring the golden goal in the sixth minute of overtime off Eichenbaum's cross on the ground to give Shore a 1-0 win over Brearley and the program's first ever NJSIAA group championship.
Playing in its first group final since 1970, Shore completed the championship run one year after winning the Central Jersey Group I championship before losing to eventual Group I champion Haddon Township in the group semifinal.
This time around, the Blue Devils had Eichenbaum, who was a standout on the team as a freshman and sophomore, but did not play on last year's sectional championship team due to his academy soccer commitments.
"Last year, the younger guys had to grow up quick because Maxx wasn’t on the team," Shore coach Christian Pontier said. "This year, Maxx has faced a lot of double teams and a lot of physical play, but he has been a warrior. He has been battling a sprained ankle for about a month and a half. He just keeps playing because he didn’t want to miss his senior year."
Eichenbaum felt he needed to be a part of a championship run and Shore needed Eichenbaum to help replace the three senior starters from last year's team.
"It feels great doing it with all these guys," Eichenbaum said. "We have been working hard all season. I wanted to come back and be able to push them even farther than they got last year.
"In preseason, the guys were begging me to play. I was like, ‘You know what, I’ve got to play with my friends one last time before I go."
"He has been my best friend since middle school," Shore senior center back Tyler Jackson said of Eichenbaum. "Him coming back, he’s an amazing player and it’s been just amazing having him back on the team. He wanted to play with all his friends and once I got that call from him and he said he was playing, I was so happy."
Molnar's goal was his fourth of the season and he now has seven goals to go with 17 assists during the last two seasons.
"It was a throw-in from Sean and I saw it went to Max because he didn’t want to throw it to (Brearley senior Thomas Pugliese)," Molnar said. "He was winning most of the headers. (Maxx) just turned and played it back across and I was right there to finish it.
"The ball came back across and I just knew I was going to put it in. It was simple. It was on a silver platter for me."
"I’m just super happy for him," Pontier said. "There is probably not an easier goal that he’ll score in his career, but there is not a bigger goal for Shore Regional boys soccer than that one."
On a team with four senior starters, two of them directly contributed to the championship-winning goal. Senior outside back Sean Newbert fired a low throw-in on the ground toward the feet of Eichenbaum on the right side of the 18-yard box. Eichenbaum touched it toward the end-line and as he slid to retrieve it, the senior crossed it toward the front of the goal.
"It was a great toss," Eichenbaum said. "They were winning everything in the air, so he just threw it on the ground to me. I honestly didn’t expect it to work that well, but he executed it perfectly."
Eichenbaum's cross got past Bears goalkeeper Gabriel Jorge on the near post and rolled right to a crashing Molnar, who knocked it in without a challenge. Molnar's easy finish set off a hard-earned celebration that the Shore program has been working toward for more than a half-century.
I saw the ball going out of bounds, but I was able to get around the ball and hook it towards the six," Eichenbaum said. "I saw Stephen right there and once I saw it go in, I just ran to my family and friends and our entire crowd. It was a great feeling."
For the entirety of regulation, Shore and Brearley countered one another's strengths, with Shore controlling possession in the first half to outshoot the Bears, 5-0, over the first 40 minutes. Shore had its best regulation opportunity in the 33rd, when junior Lukas Villa smoked a shot that Bears goalkeeper Gabriel Jorge swatted away with a diving, right-handed stab at the ball.
Brearley ramped up the pressure in the second half and used its considerable size advantage to its benefit by winning balls in the air and playing for set pieces. The Bears got their best chance when Ope Ogunwolere broke free behind the backline, only to have his shot saved by Shore goalkeeper Kevin Barfield.
"In the first half, we were fine," Jackson said. "We had most of the possession. In the second half, they just pressured us the whole time. It was a very physical game. (Rashon Thorne) was huge up top, so I had to deal with that all game. Once they put (Thomas Pugliese) up top, he was their whole defense, so we knew we were going to win."
Shore created one last scoring chance in the 78th minute. A throw-in by Newbert bounced off the head of a Brearley player and toward an exposed net after Jorge left his line to play the ball. Pugliese quickly recovered and cleared the ball away with a long overhead volley.
The Blue Devils built toward the winning goal during the five-plus minutes of overtime, with freshman Silvio Pessoa nearly ending it on a 15-yard strike that Jorge saved. Three minutes later, Newbert, Eichenbaum and Molnar combined on the winner.
"A lot of it has to do with last year’s run," Pontier said. "We were used it. The guys were telling me, when I asked how they were feeling, they were like, ‘We’re not nervous. Last year, we were nervous."
Shore's other two senior starters -- Jackson and Barfield -- led a shutout effort by the Blue Devils defense. Jackson steadied the back line and held down Brearley forward Rashon Thorpe, while Barfield made four saves to nail down his 10 clean sheet of the season.
During the state tournament, Shore conceded just one goal in six matches and, although it took overtime wins in both the Central Group I final vs. College Achieve Central and on Saturday to finish the job, never trailed on the scoreboard.
"I like to play with our outside backs in front of me so I can chase anything down that comes behind," Jackson said. "And we trust ourselves. I have had 100 percent confidence throughout the whole tournament. I said that I wasn’t going to let any goals against us. We gave up one."
With seven returning starters, Shore is in position to make another run at a Group I title in 2024, but the senior impact from Eichenbaum, Newbert, Jackson and Barfield has been immeasurable.
"They are great kids," Pontier said. "All my seniors – even the guys on the bench who probably wish they played a lot more – have been great. They are humble and it has always been about the team. I always try to stress to the older guys that they remember being one of the younger guys and you have to take care of those young guys. Be positive with them, be patient, lift them up and they will be good and that makes us better."
"I’ll be coming back years from now to see if they can do this again," Jackson said. "I hope next year I can get to some of the games and watch them do this again."
Shore 1, David Brearley 0
Goals (Assists): (S) Stephen Molnar (Maxx Eichenbaum) 86'
Shots: Shore, 11-6
Saves: (DB) Gabriel Jorge 6; (S) Kevin Barfield 4