Boys Soccer – NJSIAA Sectional Final Previews
Of the eight teams playing for NJSIAA sectional championships in Central Jersey, five of them are from the Shore Conference - including two sectional finals that feature teams from the Shore pitted against one another. Toms River South and Asbury Park are seeking their second consecutive sectional titles, Holmdel and Ocean are chasing their second in three years, while Monmouth Regional is out to win its first sectional championship since 1965.
The best part about Monday's schedule is that if you want to watch all three games involving Shore teams, you can easily do so (as long as you are off from work and visit the Eskimo section at your department store of choice). Here is a look at the three championship games involving Shore teams, starting with the two Shore-Shore showdowns.
NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III Final
No. 2 Toms River South (16-5-2) at No. 1 Ocean (18-3-2), 11 a.m.
This year's CJ III final pits the last two sectional champions against one another. The two finalists in Central Jersey Group III are from different divisions and different counties, but have developed a nice rivalry over the last five-or-so years. Dating back to 2012, Ocean and Toms River South have met four times in a tournament setting, with each team winning twice. Considering how many players on either team are set to return next year, it might not be all that safe to call Friday's game a rubber match.
The last time these two met was this year's Shore Conference Tournament semifinal on Oct. 23. Although it was set to be a neutral-site round, Ocean was the host team and defeated Toms River South on its home field, 3-2, on a 45-yard free kick by Job Cajas in the 76th minute. The goal was the second of the game by Cajas, who has not scored another goal this season.
In that game, the Spartans rallied from a 2-1 halftime deficit after Isaiah Dominguez gave Toms River South a 2-1 lead on a pair of goals off throw-ins late in the first half. Dominguez was just settling back into the rotation after missing most of the year with a foot injury.
Speaking of injuries, they played a significant role in the last meeting between the teams on both sides. The Indians played without sophomore Shane Kluxen due to a head injury and since his return, he has proven his worth. He scored two goals in each of his team's last two wins - in the quarterfinals against Toms River East and in Wednesday's semifinal win over Northern Burlington.
On the Ocean side, the Spartans played the SCT semifinals without senior defender Mark Butler and without junior defender Zach Sintic for most of the game. Both players went out with head injuries and Sintic returned three days later against Holmdel.
Rest could also be a factor, as Toms River South will be playing with one day of rest between games while Ocean plays with two. That was also the case in the first meeting, when Ocean outplayed the Indians in the second half and wound up nearly doubling them up in shots, 11-6.
The difference between the teams has been that Toms River South has been able to reach the Group III final in recent years, while the Spartans are looking to make it to a Group final for the first time since winning the Group III championship in 1996. The Indians have appeared in the last two Group III finals, defeating Ocean in the group semifinal two years ago, when the Indians played in South Jersey Group III and Ocean was in Central Jersey.
NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II Final
No. 2 Monmouth at No. 1 Holmdel (19-1-1), 2 p.m.
A No. 1 vs. No. 2 game in the NJSIAA Tournament isn't typically billed as "David vs. Goliath" but that would be a fair classification for this game. Monmouth Regional has not been this far in the NJSIAA Tournament since 1965, when the Falcons won Group III and is embarking on this run one year removed from a five-win season in 2016. Holmdel, meanwhile, entered the season the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference, won the Shore Conference Tournament in dominant fashion, and has reached a group title game four times in the past seven seasons.
While those facts don't bode well for Monmouth, the task seemed similarly daunting for Holmdel's opponent on Tuesday but that did not prevent Matawan from nearly shocking the Hornets. It took Holmdel a round of penalty kicks to get by the 12th-seeded Huskies in the sectional semifinals on Tuesday, so the Falcons enter Friday's championship game knowing that Holmdel is talented, but not invincible.
To make things even better for Monmouth - and uneasier for Holmdel - the weather could play a role on Friday like it did on Tuesday, when the two teams played in a steady drizzle and wind for the duration of the game. While there is no rain in Friday's forecast, it is set to be cold and windy, with a wind-chill factor potentially dipping below 30 degrees.
As for the soccer side of things, the Central Jersey Group II final will feature three of the top scorers in the Shore Conference. Holmdel boasts one of the state's best forward duos in junior Anthony Arena and senior Justin McStay, who have combined for a whopping 56 goals and 40 assists. Arena, on his own, has racked up 31 goals and 23 assists for Holmdel, both of which lead the Shore Conference.
Monmouth's top scoring threat is senior forward Joel Burgos, who has 30 goals despite missing the better part of two weeks with a thigh bruise. His 30 goals this season is a new single-season record at Monmouth and he scored his record-breaking goal as part of the Falcons' 2-1 win over Rumson-Fair Haven in Tuesday's semifinal.
For Monmouth to win, their defense will have to be rock solid in what figures to be a formation geared toward preventing Holmdel from making free runs at the goal. The Falcons also have a freshman goalkeeper in Dominick Santaniello who has performed with some of the top keepers in the conference despite his grade. It stands to reason Monmouth will need a performance of a lifetime from its rookie keeper.
Holmdel, meanwhile, is pursuing its second ever state title and is chasing a potential top-five ranking in the state if the Hornets can finish strong. A top-20 team awaits the winner of the CJ II final, as powerhouses Delran and Haddonfield square off in South Jersey Group II. With the program's first ever SCT title on the list of this year's accomplishments, an overall championship during a strong year for Group II teams would help cement this Holmdel squad as the best in school history and among the top teams in the history of the Shore Conference.
NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I Final
No. 2 Asbury Park (15-4-1) at No. 1 Highland Park (15-3-2), 6 p.m.
What a difference a year makes. Last year, Asbury Park was one of the feel-good stories of the NJSIAA Tournament: a program that went 35 years without a sectional title and won just five games in 2015 turned things around in one offseason to win 18 games and become the Central Jersey Group I champions. Now, the Blue Bishops are the big, bad, defending sectional champions standing in the way of a Highland Park team seeking its first ever sectional championship while also in the midst of a historic season by its standards.
Like Asbury Park last year, Highland Park owns the edge in home-field advantage on Friday and is expecting plenty of fans to brave the cold temperatures in the forecast to enhance that advantage. The Owls also have a dynamic scorer in senior Jonah Beberman, who has racked up 35 goals during his senior season en route to becoming the program's all-time leading scorer with 81 for his career.
The Blue Bishops counter with a star of their own in Davensky JoinVilmar. The speedy senior has emerged as one of the Shore's most dynamic players over the past two seasons, during which JoinVilmar has accumulated 47 goals and 33 assists - including 31 and 18 this year. He has already had a big state tournament as well, posting six goals and four assists while scoring in each of Asbury Park's three games.
Beyond their similar records and 30-goal scorers, the two opponents have some common threads through their respective schedules. Both teams played close games with Group II Metuchen during the season, with Asbury Park winning its opener, 6-5, against the Bulldogs and Highland Park splitting a pair games decided by one goal. Both also have a close loss to a perennially strong Group IV team from Central Jersey - Highland Park by a 3-2 score to South Brunswick in the GMC Tournament and Asbury Park by a 4-3 count to Freehold Township in a state tournament tune-up game.
Both teams also survived shootout scares during the state tournament, with Highland Park beating South River, 8-7, after a scoreless 100 minutes in the sectional quarterfinals and Asbury Park topping New Egypt, 4-2, after a 2-2 draw.
Highland Park has the edge in its collection of losses, with defeats at the hands of Metuchen, Edison and South Brunswick - all teams with winning records. Asbury Park, meanwhile, has losses to Ranney (4-11-1) and Ewing (3-12-2), which combined to go 7-23-3. The Owls also have a noteworthy win against St. Joseph Metuchen, which is Middlesex County's premier non-public program.
The Owls have been to three sectional finals and are set to play in their first since 1999. Since that time, Highland Park has been to the sectional semifinals seven times and finally cleared that hurdle Tuesday with its 2-1 win over Bound Brook.