OCEAN TWP. - With most of their starting lineup back from a year ago, the Ocean High School boys soccer team had all offseason to think about losing in two tournament championship games.

The first of the two losses was a game they would all rather forget and after an overall sound performance on Friday in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals against Raritan, the Spartans will have a chance to make it a distant memory.

Santieno Harding scored two goals in the first half and Erick Vasquez-Gonzalez added one in the 64th minute to pace the fourth-seeded Spartans to a 3-0 win over No. 21 Raritan. Ocean advances to the SCT semifinals for the second straight year and third time in four years.

Ocean will next meet top-seeded Holmdel in the second semifinal on Monday night at Point Pleasant Boro High School. The game will be a rematch of last year's SCT championship game, which Holmdel won in a rout, 7-1.

"Obviously, last year was extremely disappointing," senior midfielder Luke Yates said. "It was hard to take for a while but by the state (tournament) game, it was out of our heads."

In that blowout win for the Hornets, Anthony Arena set an SCT finals record with five goals and Holmdel outscored Ocean 5-0 in the second half to blow the game open. Ocean actually scored first in the game before conceding the equalizer and the go-ahead goal just before the half.

"(Arena) put on a show on our home field last year and I'm sure that bothered our guys during the offseason," Ocean coach John Terlecsky said. "I know they play those guys at the travel level too, so there is a rivalry there and I think there will be a pride factor after what happened last year."

Ocean has seven starters back from last year's team plus Shore Regional transfer All-Shore midfielder Leonardo Montesinos now in the fold. Holmdel, meanwhile, brings back six starters from last year, including Arena up top and his cousin, Joe Arena, in the midfield. Needless to say, the Ocean players are eager to author a new chapter in the rivalry.

"I can remember turning to try to clear the ball in our own end and I ended up hitting it right to Arena in the middle of the 18," Yates said. "That's the play I have replayed in my mind and it's a perfect example of the kinds of mistakes you just can't afford to make against a team like that. I think everybody learned that lesson from last year."

The Spartans Friday played like a team eager to sharpen its proverbial edges for its biggest game of the season. They applied serious pressure on Raritan for the first 10 minutes and although Ocean did not get a goal during that time, the Spartans continued to soften up the Raritan defense with their possession in the midfield and through-balls to Harding.

"Luke and Leo have been dominating the midfield and when you possess the ball like we have, it's only a matter of time before the shots start coming and, eventually, going in," Terlecsky said.

The offensive work finally paid off just past the midway point in the first half. Yates played a diagonal cross toward the far right post and Harding played it off of one bounce and headed it in for the opening goal in the 25th.

"We had to be relentless today," Harding said. "Coach told us they were going to be physical and maybe a little dirty, so we had to keep our heads, focus on the game and finish every play."

"(Harding) is so fast, I can just play the ball to an area and nine times out of 10, he is going to beat his man there," Yates said. "I caught him out of the corner of my eye and played it to the far post. All of a sudden, I see him come fly in to get the goal."

The senior striker later made it 2-0 in the 34th when he drew a foul inside the 18-yard box and converted the ensuing penalty kick.

"It felt good good to get my boys riled up," Harding said. "I really felt like we kept playing after the second goal. They got some chances, they have some dangerous players, but we didn't let up."

Ocean is coming off a win over Toms River North in which it converted just one chance in a 1-0 win despite controlling the play and racking up a considerable advantage in shots. Two games earlier, the Spartans could not come up with a goal in a 2-0 loss to Wall. Harding's first goal took the edge off for Ocean and his penalty kick relaxed the Spartans even more.

"The core has been here for two years and there have been plenty of times in tournament play where we have been down 1-0," Terlecsky said. "I do have a lot of confidence in tight games because I think sometimes we do play better with our backs against the wall. We haven't had that many situations like that this year and you do kind of want to see them so you have a sense how the team will respond, but the guys have been there before over the last couple years."

Vasquez-Gonzalez later scored on a rebound of a putback attempt by James Schutz to cap the scoring. Yates took the initial shot that Raritan goalkeeper Gavin Hersey could not hang onto, leaving Schutz with the ball at his feet in front of the goal. Hersey slowed up Schutz's attempt, but Vasquez was there for the easy finish.

Max Winters, meanwhile, made six saves to earn the shutout, including a key double-save in the final minute of the first half to deny scoring bids by Jake Fortune and Nick Bavaro. Fortune was again dangerous for Raritan on Friday, even striking the opening kick of the second half just wide of the right post with Winters not expecting to face a shot that early.

"They have some dangerous players, (Fortune) has been red-hot so it was really important for us to keep the ball in the midfield and stay organized in the back," Yates said. "He was shooting from pretty much everywhere. He was dangerous, but we didn't let him get behind us and Max did a great job saving some of those shots."

Ocean is lined up to enter the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III playoffs as a top seed and will have a chance at redemption after losing at home to Toms River South in last year's sectional final. Before that, however, the senior-laden Spartans are hoping to flip the script against an undefeated Holmdel side ranked No. 1 at the Shore and No. 2 in the state.

"They are obviously very good - undefeated, number one in the Shore, number two in the state," senior midfielder Luke Yates said. "I think that puts the pressure on them to beat us again, but we're obviously going to have to be at the top of our game to beat them."


Box Score

Ocean 3, Raritan 0

Raritan (7-8-1)000
Ocean (14-3)213

Goals (Assists): (O) Satieno Harding (Luke Yates), Santieno Harding (PK), Erick Vasquez (James Schutz)
Shots: Ocean, 22-9
Saves: (R) Gavin Hersey 7; (O) Max Winters 6


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