HOLMDEL - The reigning Shore Sports Network Player of the Year limping off in the 23rd minute of his team's third game of the season would be a deflating sight for most teams.

Although it wasn't a welcome sight for the Holmdel boys soccer team, it was a chance to show that the No. 1 side in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and No. 2 team in the state is more than just a dynamic scorer.

Holmdel scored all three of its goals Saturday after Arena left the game with a left hamstring injury and also ran its defensive scoreless streak to 240 minutes in a 3-0 win over Colts Neck.

Arena had one chance on frame in the game but didn't not hit it squarely and the shot was saved by Colts Neck junior goalkeeper Dylan Jacobs. He later pulled up lame while trying to chase down a long ball from cousin Joe Arena and limped off with the game still scoreless in the 23rd.

"When you see the best player in the Shore Conference, in my opinion, limping off the field, it's not a good thing," Joe Arena said. "He's been a beast for us the last two, three years and he's been a big reason why we're such a dangerous team, but we also have a lot of other guys who are dangerous too. If teams out there think it's all about Anthony Arena with us, I think this was a good example how much balance and depth we have as a team."

Despite losing a forward that led the Shore Conference in both goals (35) and assists (25) in 2017, Holmdel still overwhelmed Colts Neck on Saturday, outshooting the Cougars 24-1. The Hornets dominance finally turned into a lead on the scoreboard in the 37th minute, when junior Jack Giamanco poked in a headball flick from senior Ryan Ferguson.

Senior Peter Vassilakos peppered the Cougars defense with a series of long throw-ins and eventually he got one to the near post for Ferguson, who elevated over the defense to set up Giamanco.

"This team loves to go after headballs, which has not been the case in past years," Holmdel coach John Nacarlo said. "We've typically been a smaller team that likes to keep in on the ground but these guys want to win the ball in the air and that has added another element."

Just 39 seconds after Giamanco opened the scoring, Holmdel's two outside fullbacks connected for the Hornets' second goal. Junior Mark Walier played a 35-yard diagonal ball and senior Jack Russo tracked it to the back right post and headed it in with 2:41 left in the first half.

"I think it's always a process finding how everybody fits, especially early in the season," said Russo, who is committed to play at St. John's has played all over the field for Holmdel over the last two seasons. "A lot of the guys who are starters this year sat behind some really good players on last year's team so they are hungry for a shot. Everybody is playing with something to prove so that's really helped us so far."

Holmdel put the game on ice in the 52nd off a short corner, with senior Mark McStay playing a deep cross to the back right post and Ferguson finishing with his head.

The corner kick was one of 10 earned by Holmdel on Saturday against just one for Colts Neck.

Ferguson's role in Saturday's win is part of a strong start to his senior year in which he has done an admirable job in filling some large boots. Last year, Justin McStay posted 26 goals and 18 assists for the Shore's No. 1 team and Ferguson has brought an element of McStay's game back to the attack in scoring three goals and two assists through Holmdel's first three games.

"If you want to compare him to Justin, he is just as much of a blockhead," Arena joked. "He goes into every tackle 150 percent. He is the one guy who has stepped his game up 100 percent so far."

"Last year, (goalkeeper) Matt Lionette was the most improved player early in the season and it won him a starting job," Nacarlo said. "Ferguson has been that guy so far this year. He has an incredible work-rate up top which, I think, really complements Anton (Arena) when both of them are in the game."

While Holmdel has again lit up the scoreboard to open the season, its defense has been the story so far. The Hornets defense and goalkeeper Jack Murray have yet to allow a goal and Walier, Russo and Vassilakos have made themselves part of the attack as well, with senior center back Torre Avitable anchoring the last line of defense ahead of Murray.

"I've been saying this for the last few weeks: this is the best defensive unit I've had since I have been here," Nacarlo said. "All four guys are great one-v.-one defenders and Walier and Russo do a great job making themselves dangerous coming out of the back. Then you have Jack in goal, who was our keeper two years ago and a center back for us last year, so he has a great understanding of how the entire defense works."

"I really feel like this team has a chance to be better than it was last year and a big reason is our defense," Russo said. "We have so much chemistry and so much trust in each other right now."

Nacarlo could not say how much time, if any, Anthony Arena will miss due to his hamstring injury, but the Hornets can afford to play it safe with their star forward. Holmdel's regular-season schedule is significantly more challenging this season thanks to out-of-division games against Christian Brothers Academy, Pingry, Toms River South, Pinelands and a possible make-up game against Freehold Township.

"We can afford to play it safe if we have to," Nacarlo said. "He's obviously an important part of what we do so we want him to be 100 percent when tournament time rolls around. In the meantime, it's good to see the guys answer the challenge playing without him and if they play like they did today, I think we'll be alright if we have to go a few games without him."


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