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NEPTUNE -- During the first two rounds of the Shore Conference Tournament, senior defender R.J. Eckelman and senior goalkeeper Charlie Scanlon carried the Howell boys soccer team through two shutouts and two rounds of penalty kicks. That should come as no surprise considering those are two of the five returning starters from a 2021 Howell team that reached the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game.

In order to break a 240-minute tournament scoring drought, however, the Rebels needed a lift from a trio of players who were not on the varsity team last year.

Senior J.P. Candela and sophomores John Fiorillo and Nick Turturro each scored in the second half and Howell -- the No. 2 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament -- erupted for three goals after halftime to roll to a 3-1 win over No. 3 Holmdel Thursday at Memorial Field at Summerfield School.

The victory catapults Howell into the Shore Conference Tournament final for the first time since 2007, when the Rebels captured their only conference tournament title in program history. Howell will play top-seeded Christian Brothers Academy Saturday in Neptune at 6:30 p.m.

"As coaches, if we could figure out the secret, we would be here every year," said Howell coach Rich Yuro, who guided the Rebels to the 2007 SCT title and four SCT semifinal appearances from 2006 to 2010. "Something just clicks. Every year you get a good group of guys, there are some seniors who are leaders and then sometimes, it all just clicks.

"The momentum starts to roll, guys start to see the light at the end of the tunnel and they start to believe. They think, 'Hey, maybe we can really do this.'"

A year ago, Candela watched Howell's postseason run from the bleachers, having chosen to play academy soccer over joining his school team. He made up his mind at the end of last season to be a part of this year's championship chase and while he has made a substantial impact in the center of the field all season, Thursday's second-half performance may have been a defining moment.

"Last year, I was thinking of joining (the high school team)," Candela said. "Then, the boys made it to the state finals, I was at the game and I got a little emotional. I was like, 'This is mine next year. I'm winning it all next year.'"

According to Yuro, Candela is playing through discomfort in his hamstring, which has forced him to pick his spots and has forced Yuro to give his star some extra help in the midfield.

On Thursday, Candela found a soft spot in Holmdel's formation and went to work right away in half No. 2. He made a run up the left side, received a pass from Turturro, made it to the end line and crossed the ball back toward the penalty spot. Junior Aidan Pacheco was the first player to the ball and he knocked it back to an open Fiorillo, who chipped a shot over Holmdel senior goalkeeper Ilan Golden and into the far right corner of the goal.

"We knew our luck was going to break eventually," Candela said. "We weren't going to be playing 200 more minutes (without a goal) for another week-and-a-half. We have been banged up, but we had to push. We had to change our style. We overloaded the middle, tried to play simple and played our game. That's how our game is."

"At first, I didn't think it was going to go in, because he is a lefty and he hit it with his right foot," Turturro said. "I was getting ready for the follow-up and when it hit the back of the net, it felt great. It fired us up and the first guy I went to was J.P., because I gave him the ball and he started the whole play."

Howell gave itself some breathing room in the 67th on a goal by Turturro off a short cross from Candela. Senior Nick Spisak beat the defense up the left side all the way to the end line and found Candela open on the near side. Candela kept the ball moving toward the middle and Turturro converted a wide-open shot for a 2-0 Rebels lead.

"Every practice, we do a lot of build-up," Turturro said. "So I already knew Nick or J.P. was going to be there, so I didn't have to look up much because I could hear him. After that, it's just muscle memory."

Holmdel cut its deficit in half in the 71st, when sophomore Kieran Hayes skied for a header on a cross by junior Frankie Brusco and slammed it in.

"What I liked was as soon as they started pressing, it wasn't all just play safe," Yuro said. "We worked the ball, made good passes and even got a couple of counter-attacks. When you start banging it out, they have four guys against our one and now they are coming at you. So I really liked the way we handled that."

Howell had a quick response, with Candela drawing a foul just inside the 18-yard box and converting the penalty kick. With his penalty finish, Candela was in the mix on all three Howell goals.

"We just had to find those little spaces in the defense, try to go after them and then finish," Candela said. "Once we get to our spot, just keep our composure, find the simple pass and find the easy goal."

The sophomore duo, meanwhile, made up the other newcomers to deliver in the second half on Thursday. Fiorillo and Turturro spent last season playing on the junior varsity and freshman teams and both were part of Howell's group of five shooters during penalty-kick victories over Manasquan and Rumson-Fair Haven in the first two rounds.

"We didn't get any playing time at the varsity level last year," Turturro said. "We played pretty well at the jayvee level, but we were practicing with the varsity team, so we got to know the coaches and we got to know the juniors very well. We really got to know the guys even more over the summer and once the season started, we were ready to go."

"The freshman team had a great year last year, so even the guys from that sophomore class who didn't play today are a great group," Yuro said. "They came up, they are playing well. For John to get that goal was huge. Those guys have been the fillers this year: the guys who graduated, we're using the young guys to fill those roles."

Although Howell's goal-scoring outfit stepped up and starred in the second half, Eckelman and Scanlon were again standouts for Howell. Scanlon saved four shots in the game and allowed the first goal by the opposition in the tournament, but he also shut down shooting lanes for Holmdel when the Hornets opened up the match with a flurry of quality looks at the goal.

"You can't say enough about him," Yuro said of Scanlon. "He is the reason we're going this far in the tournament. We're playing good defense, we're getting opportunistic goals, but when push comes to shove, Charlie is saving the day. Any one of those shots goes in and you're deflated, you're trying to fight back and the whole game plan changes. He never let it happen."

Eckelman, meanwhile, has captained the defense after playing up top as a junior and leading the team with 12 assists.

"We were trying to figure out what to do with R.J. because we had him up top last year and he is more of a grinder than a finisher," Yuro said. "We tried him on the outside because of his speed and then when we watched him all the way in the back, we saw nobody gets by him. He makes good reads, he's got good balance, he doesn't get beat, so he fit and it really let us build the rest of the lineup from there."

With the defense and Scanlon leading the way, Howell posted shutouts against Manasquan and Rumson in each of the first two rounds and advanced each time despite not scoring a goal in either game. That trend continued for the first half on Thursday, but the Rebels quickly turned the tide within the first minute of the second half.

Howell's regular-season clash with CBA saw the Rebels drop a 2-1 decision to the Shore's No. 1 team in a game played at Howell High School. Candela was on a college visit on the day of the game and did not play, so the senior's addition to the equation alone could spell the difference between a win and a loss.


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