NEPTUNE - Ocean boys soccer coach Tom Reilly lamented his lack of adjustments in a regular-season loss to Shore Regional on Sept. 19. The phrase "better late than never" might apply if the timing of those adjustments was not so perfect.

With a second shot at unbeaten and top-seeded Shore in Thursday's Shore Conference Tournament semifinal at Memorial Athletic Complex, No. 4 Ocean put together a complete game to take down the Blue Devils, 2-0, and reach the SCT final for the eighth time.

"I thought it would take at least two goals to win tonight because I assumed they would score on us," said Reilly of Shore, who entered the game averaging better than five goals per game and put up three in the win in September. "They are so good up top. Their first six guys in the formation can all finish, so you don't come in expecting to shut them out, so to that tells you that we were on our game for 80 minutes."

Teammates swarm Marlhens Nasanes (11) after the senior scored to give Ocean a 2-0 lead on Shore Thursday night. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Shore was indeed dangerous when it found space to shoot, but that space was limited Thursday night. By the time the Blue Devils generated their two best opportunities of the game in the final 10 minutes, the Spartans had long since established a two-goal lead.

In the first meeting, Shore scored early in the first half and took a 2-0 lead into halftime before stretching the lead to 3-0 early in the second half. This time around, it was Ocean that jumped on top, scoring on a goal by senior Braylin Estrella in the seventh minute on a corner kick by junior Ian Dwyer.

Dwyer had just minutes earlier nearly staked Ocean to a 1-0 lead in the third minute with a rip from eight-yards out that hit the outside side netting. Dwyer ultimately had a hand in the game's first goal by swinging a corner kick into the middle of the box, where Estrella poked it in from inside the six-yard line after it hit the ground.

"I think it kind of shocked them a little because they probably came in expecting to step over us again," Ocean senior center fullback and captain Ryan Wells said. "We didn't think that was going to happen. We came into this game pretty confident and they had all the psychological pressure that comes with being the number one seed and an undefeated team. We could just be the team that relaxed and played our game."

If Shore had any designs of starting the second half strong and tying the game up, senior Marlhens Nasanes squashed them with his third goal in the last two games 3:04 into the second half. He had just had a similar shot saved by Shore goalkeeper Evan Coffey and after taking a pass from senior Wadneson Alexis on the left side, he dribbled once to his right and this time drilled the inside of the far right post and got the favorable bounce into the goal.

"We picked a bad time to play our worst half of the year," Shore coach Christian Pontier said, referencing the first half. "In the second half, we played okay. We thought coming out if we could hold down the fort in the back we would get back in the game, but giving up that second goal really put us in the hole."

Up until the final 10 minutes of the game, Ocean had completely shut down Shore's attack, allowing leading scorer J.T. Kessler (39 goals this season) one shot on goal in the first half - a falling shot that Spartans senior goalkeeper Yianni Kavarakas saved without any trouble.

In the 71st minute, however, Shore senior Brett Norman found himself open from 12 yards out and drilled a shot toward the right side of the frame. Kavarakas came through, though, parrying the ball off to the same side and out of bounds.

Three minutes later, Kessler unleashed his most dangerous shot of the game - and left-footed strike off a quick turn that hit the crossbar square and bounced away from the goal. With 3:52 left, freshman Leonardo Montesinos was sent off with his second yellow card, leaving Shore a man down as time ticked away.

In a game in which Shore took only five shots, three of those were on frame and one nailed the crossbar. Even when the Blue Devils beat Ocean during the regular season, they conceded an 11-7 advantage in shots, but converted on three of those attempts.

"It doesn't take much for them," Reilly said. "Kessler turned nothing into something on that play and hit the crossbar there late in the game. So even when you know you've covered up all your holes, they can still create something dangerous."

Ocean's effective counter to Shore's attack hinged on taking space away from the Blue Devils in the midfield, where Shore loaded up with three center midfielders during the first meeting.

"They were able to run at our back line in the first game," Reilly said. "There was way too much space in the middle and the game was too stretched out. We didn't do a good job, I didn't make the proper adjustments and our guys were under constant pressure with two much space.

"Tonight, we didn't give them a lot of room. There was not a lot of room for their kids to operate. They are all really good with the ball and technical and they can all beat you. The big difference was we filled the dangerous spots early and didn't let them run at us."

Ocean also benefitted from having Kavarakas in goal after the senior missed the regular-season match while sitting out with a back injury. In nine games since the return of its keeper, Ocean is 8-1 and has now recorded five straight shutouts.

"I think he does help keep us organized in the back and it keeps people in their proper place," Wells said of Kavarakas. "He also helps us track runs so I think having Yianni back has been a big difference these last few weeks."

Thursday was not the first time Shore trailed this season, but it was the first halftime deficit for the Blue Devils. Shore trailed Rumson-Fair Haven 2-1 during the second half on Oct. 17, but scored four unanswered goals to win 5-2.

"We felt like we were in the game at half, but they are tough," Pontier said. "They have that speed up top and they just crowded their box and played balls up to their guys and got some chances out of it.

The Blue Devils will now rest for a full week before taking the field for the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I Tournament. Shore is the defending sectional champion and earned a bye as the No. 1 seed. The Blue Devils will host either No. 9 South Amboy or No. 8 and Class B Central division rival Point Pleasant Beach.

"I don't know it the week off will be good, but we'll try to recover and get ready to make a deeper run than last year," Pontier said.

Ocean will take on No. 2 Christian Brothers Academy in Saturday's championship game at 5 p.m. The match-up pits the top two teams in all-time SCT championship game appearances, with CBA preparing for its record 10th and Ocean gearing up for its eighth. CBA has won a record eight titles - including one co-championship - while Ocean has won four and the two have never met in an SCT final. An Ocean victory would pull the Spartans even with Jackson Memorial for the second-most SCT championships behind CBA.

"It will definitely be fun because we don't get to play them during the regular season," Wells said. "It will be interesting to see what the teams on the other side of the bracket have had to deal with. I have a couple of friends on the team, so it will be fun to play against them."

"I think we're playing with house money," Reilly said. "A month ago, I don't think anybody thought we were going to be in the final, while I'm sure there were plenty of people who thought CBA would be there. In that regard, we might be the underdog.

But if we can turn in a performance like we did tonight, where everyone concentrates for 80 minutes and plays their positions as their meant to and we finish chances, then we have a shot in any game. CBA's super-talented and they're going to be a handful, but we're in the final and that's where we want to be."


Box Score

Ocean 2, Shore 0

1 2 F
Ocean (15-3) 1 1 2
Shore (19-1) 0 0 0

Goals (Assists): (O) Braylin Estrella (Ian Dwyer) 7’, Marlhens Nasanes (Wadneson Alexis) 44’
Shots: Ocean, 14-5
Saves: (O) Yianni Kavarakas 3; (S) Evan Coffey 4