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LACEY TWP. - Thursday's result for Pinelands on the road vs. Lacey might be the most significant of the season by the Wildcats, any team in Class B South and among the biggest wins by any team during the Shore Conference regular season.

Still, after escaping with a 1-0 road win over the Thursday to complete a sweep of the Lions this week and remain unbeaten, the Pinelands players were as frustrated with their struggles to control the game as they were to take a significant step toward a fourth straight finish atop the Shore Conference Class B South standings.

Even in a season altered by a pandemic, the standards continue to climb and topping the field in B South is only one step for the Wildcats.

"We'd really like to get back to a sectional final," Pinelands senior Johnny Hart said, alluding to Pinelands' trip to the 2018 NJSIAA South Jersey Group III championship game. "Obviously, we hope we can have that opportunity, but just to be able to compete for another B South championship in my senior year is huge. That would be a great way to go out, especially in a short season."

Pinelands goalkeeper Gavin Harris elevates for a ball in the box at Lacey. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Pinelands goalkeeper Gavin Harris elevates for a ball in the box at Lacey. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

On Tuesday, Hart sent his team home with a 22-yard free kick with just over a minute left in the second overtime period, capping a 2-1 win for Pinelands over Lacey. He also scored on a penalty kick to tie the game in regulation.

Two days later, the reigning Class B South Player of the Year got Pinelands got started much earlier when a trip near the left edge of the 18-yard box set up a penalty kick for the Wildcats in the seventh minute. Hart buried the awarded kick to make it 1-0, which further lit a fire under an already-motivated Lacey side.

The Lions dominated play for the remainder of the game, finishing with a 16-5 shot advantage and a 12-1 disparity on corner kicks. In the end, however, Pinelands and goalkeeper Gavin Harris completed its seventh shutout in eight games and keeping its total number of goals allowed on the season at one.

"The first game was a really competitive, really even game and we were just fortunate to come out with the win," Hart said. "We knew they (Lacey) were going to be motivated, especially having to play them only two days later. It wasn't our best game and they definitely outplayed us for a lot of the game, but our defense held on and Gavin made some huge saves, as usual."

Lacey's best chance to break through came on two opportunities within a minute of one another, starting with senior forward D.J. Edinger in the 65th minute. After the ball came back out following a free kick, Edinger lined up a 25-yard shot and drilled it toward the upper left corner of the frame. Harris, however, got his right hand on it and parried it off the crossbar and over the goal to preserve the lead.

Off the ensuing corner kick, senior George-Kyle Hernandez slammed a volley square off the crossbar, which turned out to be Lacey's last close call at an equalizer.

While the crossbar shots by Edinger and Hernandez were the closest calls by the Lions, they weren't their only ones. In the 61st, senior Noah Hamouda got loose for an uncontested header right in front of the goal by pushed it just inches wide of the left post. Near the end of the first half, left fullback Jack Costa unleashed a 30-yard shot that also clanged off the crossbar, just inches high of tying the game before intermission.

With a sweep of Lacey complete, Pinelands has six games remaining - two each vs. Point Pleasant Boro, Manchester and Lakewood - with a chance to clinch what would be an unofficial fourth consecutive B South title. While Hart and his teammates would like to finish off that pursuit and make a deep postseason run, they also want to be sure to cherish the time they get on the field. Three games scheduled in Class B South for Thursday - Lakewood vs. Barnegat, Point Boro vs. Donovan Catholic and Jackson Liberty vs. Manchester - were postponed.

"We're just happy to play any games at all, really," Hart said. "We weren't sure we were going to have a season, so we're just grateful we get 14 games to play. And if we can't make it to 14, we're glad we have gotten eight so far. Hopefully, we get to keep playing and we can make this a special season."

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