Boys Soccer – No. 2 Southern Caps Special Opening Day With Memorable Comeback
STAFFORD TWP. - Kevin Kiernan and Nico Leonard knew it was going to feel like a long offseason following their November 2019 loss to Jackson Memorial in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV quarterfinals, but they never imagined back then how long it would actually be.
It just so happened Southern's 2020 return to the pitch as a unit came against the same team that ended the Rams' 2019 season and it began a lot like the game that ended the Rams' 2019 season.
With 70 minutes to overcome a two-goal deficit and erase the bitter taste of last year's state-tournament defeat, time was finally on Southern's side.
Kiernan opened his season with two goals and an assist and Leonard scored the game-winning goal in the 67th minute as Southern - ranked No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10 - exacted a measure of revenge against No. 8 Jackson Memorial by rallying for a 4-3 opening-day win over the Jaguars.
"To be honest, I didn't think we were going to have a soccer season, so just to be on the field today was great," Kiernan said. "I was excited that we were going to play (Jackson Memorial) to open the season and they jumped on us. We didn't respond at first but we eventually fought back and we ended up winning so it turned out to be really exciting."
"For me, it was sweet," Leonard said. "I wanted to see them on the schedule, I wanted to start with them and I wanted to be able to send a message. They have throne in A South but we want it this year."
Kiernan and Leonard were just two of the senior stars for the Rams during Thursday's opener. Ryan Leavitt scored Southern's second equalizer of the game in the 62nd minute off a headball flick by Kiernan and fellow senior Brandon Notte initiated three of Southern's four goals - two with corner kicks and another with a throw-in to set up Leonard for the winner.
"I think we were all just relieved to be back," Leonard said. "I don't think a lot of us thought we were going to be back and to be back is just a great feeling."
Jackson Memorial jumped out to a 2-0 lead within the first 10 minutes, with junior Steve Bado scoring off a Zach Rogacki throw and Bugra Celik converting a service by senior classmate Brendan Labbe.
The fast start was reminiscent of the Jaguars' two wins over Southern last season in which Jackson Memorial scored within the first 13 minutes each time. On Thursday, Jackson made it a two-goal advantage early and threatened to run away with the win like the Jaguars did in a 3-0 win over Southern in the sectional quarterfinal round a year ago.
This year, however, it is Southern that has the senior experience while Jackson Memorial worked with a starting lineup Thursday that is almost entirely different than it was a year ago.
"We went into the halftime huddle thinking, 'Man if we lose this, how much harder is it going to be to finish off our final season.' There is an urgency we have that we didn't have last year, at least not like we do now.
Kiernan answered Jackson's two early strikes with two unanswered goals of his own. The first came on a 25-year direct kick in the 14th minute that the 20-goal-scorer from a year ago hammered to the upper left corner of the frame.
Southern threatened on multiple occasions before the half, but Jackson Memorial goalkeeper Charlie Harrison denied the equalizer for the time being. Harrison finished the game with eight saves and stared down 19 Southern shots to only six by his side.
Kiernan pulled Southern even 12 minutes into the second half off a corner by Notte - Southern's set-piece specialist who led the team with 11 assists in 2019.
Jackson stole the momentum back within the next three minutes. Bado - the son of the team's head coach by the same name - scored his second off the game off a pass from senior Travers Black in the 55th before Leavitt came back with another Southern equalizer in the 62nd.
In the 67th, Notte fired a long throw into the box and senior John Paul Prosperi battled a pair of Jackson Memorial defenders for the ball. The ball squirted out of the scrum and right to the feet of Leonard, who was ready to fire and ripped in the go-ahead goal.
Set-piece goals were Southern's downfall against Southern last year and two of them dealt the Rams a 2-0 deficit on Thursday. They also sparked Southern's offense, with the Rams scoring on a direct kick, two corners and a throw-in.
"We are going to have to do a better job on set pieces, especially against Jackson," Kiernan said. "At the same time, we're pretty good on set pieces so we were able to take advantage of some today."
It has been 30 years since Southern has had a team with the expectations that this year's group has, so when the season was in jeopardy over the summer, the Rams seniors feared they would never get a chance to find out how far they could take the program in their final season.
There won't be a Shore Conference Tournament to compete in - Southern has never made it past the semifinal round - but the Rams will have a chance to finish atop the Class A South standings and will likely compete in a loaded NJSIAA bracket that currently includes Group IV teams from Ocean, Monmouth, Middlesex and Union Counties.
"There might have been some doubt about ever playing with each other again, but I think we did a good job hiding it," Leonard said. "We got together, we were playing as soon as we could get out to a field. We know exactly what we have here. We know what kind of weapons we have and it's exciting."
Before any of that, though, Southern will have to face Jackson Memorial again on Friday in Jackson - part of a unique 2020 schedule that features each Shore Conference team scheduled to face the same divisional opponents in consecutive games. In Southern and Jackson Memorial's case, it will be on consecutive days.
"I think we came out with the confidence that we are the better team and we can move the ball around against them," Leonard said. "If we can play a full 80 minutes like we did after the slow start, I'm confident. We're cautious, but we're confident."