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OAKHURST - When the Neptune boys soccer team opened the season 1-7, the young Scarlet Fliers could have faded into the offseason hopeful that more normal conditions would give them a chance to develop their players before the start of the season - something they were not afforded in 2020.

Instead of letting his season get away, senior captain Marvin Muñoz-Garcia raised his game and challenged his teammates to meet him at his level. The result has been a seven-game winning streak and a rejuvenated team that looks like a legitimate contender to play in Saturday's modified NJSIAA sectional championship round.

Saturday at Ocean in the Fliers' state tournament opener, Muñoz-Garcia scored a goal for the sixth straight game and assisted another by Nate Kerr to lead Neptune - the No. 10 seed in the Central East Group III South section - to a 3-1 win over No. 7 Ocean for the Scarlet Fliers' seventh straight win.

PHOTO GALLERY: Neptune at Ocean by Paula Lopez

Marvin Muñoz-Garcia (10) congratulates Ernst Louisius (8) on his first-half goal vs. Ocean. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"We know what type of team we are and what we're capable of," Muñoz-Garcia said. "We just had to keep our mind in it and keep working hard. We knew this wasn't going to be our last game. We practiced hard yesterday, we said 'Let's come here, and let's win.'"

Neptune stormed out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by Ernst Louisius in the seventh minute and senior David Radwonski nearly made it 2-0 in the 11th when he knifed through the Spartans defense and drilled a shot just wide of the left post.

After escaping an early two-goal deficit, Ocean came back with an equalizer in the 16th minute. Junior Aidan Tisony fired a throw-in toward the near post and junior Andres Tovio Pabon flicked a header to the opposite side of the box. Senior Matt Bixby positioned himself for the flick and ripped a close-range finish for the equalizer.

The teams made it to halftime even and Neptune steadily gained the upper hand, with Muñoz-Garcia beginning to assert himself the way he had throughout his team's six straight wins heading into Saturday.

"He's at a level up here and the rest of the team is here," Neptune coach John Knight said, holding his right hand at head-level to illustrate the ability of Muñoz-Garcia. "As they have played with him, they have closed that gap and it has made Marvin an even better player too. Now, guys know the runs they have to make to get the ball from him and when he makes a run and gets himself in position, the ball is starting to get to him."

In the 57th minute, Muñoz-Garcia drew a foul from 30 yards out and served a free kick toward the far right post, where Kerr elevated over the Ocean defense for a header that put the Fliers on top for good.

Ocean did not create any dangerous chances while trailing by a goal and in the 71st, Muñoz-Garcia single-handedly put the the game out of reach. The senior center midfielder stole the ball on Neptune's side of midfield, carried it nearly 60 yards, and slipped a shot past Ocean freshman goalkeeper Paco Castelo for a 3-1 Fliers lead.

PHOTO GALLERY: Neptune at Ocean by Paula Lopez

Marvin Muñoz-Garcia (10) gets by Ocean senior Matt Bixby. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

It was then that Ocean pushed up and made a play for a second goal, firing wide of either post and testing Neptune first-year goalkeeper Amir Houllier, who made a save on a point-blank header by Tisony in the 79th to deny Ocean's last dangerous opportunity.

Neptune overcame the loss of senior Steven Camacho, who injured his ankle while the game was still 1-1 in the second half. He was carted off the field and taken to Jersey Shore for evaluation, according to Knight.

With Saturday's win, Neptune earns a trip to play No. 2 seed Pinelands in the sectional quarterfinal round. The Scarlet Fliers are also guaranteed to finish with no worse than a .500 winning percentage and one more win would guarantee a winning season for Neptune, not to mention a chance to play in a sectional semifinal.

The position Neptune is in is all-the-more impressive considering the Scarlet Fliers had even less time to prepare than other Shore Conference programs. The Neptune School District did not give its athletic programs clearance to participate in summer workouts and did not approve hosting a fall sports season at the high school until September.

While September 13 marked the first official practice for teams around the state - most of which worked out with one another in some capacity before a a two-week shutdown began on Aug. 29 - Neptune did not meet at all until that first official day of practice.

That did not stop Muñoz-Garcia and a number of the Neptune players from working on their own with the help of esteemed alumnus, Wilby Alfred. Alfred was a First Team All-Shore player for the Fliers in 2018 and led Rowan University in assists as a freshman in 2019.

"Every day in the summer, he had us out at Summerfield (Elementary School in Neptune) at eight in the morning working until one," Muñoz Garcia said. "Every single one of our seniors put in that work during the offseason, we had work to do and we just have to keep it going."

With a young team that had only two weeks to figure out how to play with one another before opening day, the Fliers lost seven of their first eight matches. It also did not help that their first three games were two against 14-0 Wall and one against 12-2 Colts Neck.

"We needed every second we could get on the pitch and we had nothing until September," Knight said. "It doesn't help playing Colts Neck and Wall the first three games. Once you get through that - and we felt like we competed with Colts Neck - we felt like we'd eventually be okay.

"We just needed experience and instead of getting it in the preseason, we had to learn on the job. The good thing is, the more they play, the better they get. They train hard. I have to kick them off the field sometimes - they want to practice three hours a day. It's been a pleasure and I'm glad they are getting a taste of success."