LITTLE EGG HARBOR - Two seasons ago, the Pinelands boys soccer team was the upstart team in the Class B South division of the Shore Conference, trying to win the program's first division title in since 1989.

On Thursday, the Wildcats won their third straight division title by overcoming a team trying to do what Pinelands did two years earlier.

Seniors Creed Nass and Logan Johnson each scored a goal and the Wildcats held off a late charge from the Hawks for a 2-1 win to clinch the outright Class B South championship for the third straight year.

"It's been a pretty surreal experience getting here," Johnson said. "Ending the drought two years ago and then winning it again were huge for the program. This year, we felt like we had something to prove. We were ranked third in the preseason (by Shore Sports Network) and with the talent we graduated, not a lot of people expected us to be here again."

Pinelands junior Johnny Hart (right) battles Manchester junior Trevor Juralewicz for the ball. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Pinelands ended a 28-year drought when it won the first of its three straight titles in 2017 and in winning its third straight, the Wildcats denied Manchester its first since 2002.

"The pedigree definitely has something to do with it," said Pinelands coach Nino Scotto di Carlo, whose first season as head coach coincided with the first of the three titles. "Once you start winning, it becomes an expectation and it gets passed down to each class. I was fortunate to take over a program as head coach that had had some very talented players in place and the guys behind them have come in and worked hard to live up to the high standards they set."

Thursday's scoring started when Nass ran down a pinpoint pass from junior Johnny Hart and slipped a shot past Manchester keeper Rich Mariotti for the game's first goal in the 17th minute.

After a dominant first half playing with the wind and a 9-1 advantage in shots, Pinelands extended its lead to 2-0 in the 55th when Johnson knocked in a cross from sophomore Nate Szwed to the front of the goal, where the senior ran down the pass and finished.

"Our game plan is always to keep the ball on the ground," Johnson said. "We are a small team so we don't want the ball in the air anyway, so going against the wind isn't as much of a problem for us."

Johnson was the starting goalkeeper as a sophomore on the 2017 B South title team and was replaced by Gavin Harris during the middle of last season. Johnson had experience as a striker and worked his way into the lineup this year, during which he has tallied four goals in his new high-school role.

"Last year, we made the decision to start developing Gavin as a junior and Logan was the consummate teammate about it," Scotto di Carlo said. "He handled it very well and started to develop his skills in the field. This year, he came prepared, he worked his way into the starting lineup and he has scored two goals in the last two games for us. He has given us a lot and it's been pretty cool to see that maturation as a player."

"When we switched, I knew (Harris) could do it," Johnson said. "He is outstanding. I think he is one of the best keepers I have ever seen. Playing up top in high school is way different that in club - it's way more physical. I wasn't ready for it last year but I came in prepared this year and it has paid off."

Manchester came alive facing a two-goal deficit, with freshman Owen Edwards lining up a touch from sophomore Brandon Sogness and skipping a low shot into the lower left of the goal in the 62nd minute.

The Hawks hit the crossbar twice in the final nine minutes, with Pinelands junior goalkeeper Gavin Harris getting a hand on both. Junior Dallas Hopkins smashed a 40-yard free kick that the wind took toward the far right corner of the frame, but Harris got enough of it to parry it up to the bar.

Edwards got a clean look in the 76th but Harris again got just enough of the shot to push it up off the crossbar.

Manchester's last hope was a foul just outside the 18-yard box in the final seconds but Hopkins fired a shot wide of the far right post as time expired.

"We gave up a bad goal and that really got them (Manchester) going," Scotto di Carlo said. "They did not want to lose that game and they really came after us and, I thought, outplayed us in the last 15 minutes."

One year prior to winning the 2017 Class B South championship, Pinelands finished one game behind Point Boro for the division title during a turnaround season. Manchester suffered a similar fate but has every reason to be optimistic going forward. The Hawks finished third in the division this season after taking seventh last year.

"If you would have said we would be playing for a division title in our last division game, I don't know that anyone would have believed you," Manchester coach Troy Madison said. "As coaches, we try to pump the kids up and get them believing in what's possible. I think getting picked to finish seventh (by Shore Sports Network) lit a fire under them and they have played with that chip on their shoulder all year. You saw it in the second half today."

They qualified for the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time since 2010 and are in line to return 10 starters next season with some of its most productive players currently sophomores and freshmen.

"Most of these kids weren't born the last time we won a division here, so this was a really valuable experience for them," Madison said. "Pinelands has been the class of B South for three years in a row, so you tip your cap to them but we made some mistakes that we're going to learn from."

Pinelands is not likely to go anywhere either, with Hart leading a strong group of returnees that will seek to make it four in a row. First, however, the Wildcats will try to make it back to the South Jersey Group III championship game, which Pinelands lost last year, 1-0, to Seneca.

"The young guys here are really talented," Johnson said. "I expect them to win again next year. We are excited about what we can do the rest of this year and in states but this program has a really good future."

 

Box Score

Pinelands 2, Manchester 1

12F
Manchester (8-9, 5-2)011
Pinelands (8-4-1, 6-0-1)112

Goals (Assists): (M) Owen Edwards (Brandon Sogness) 62'; (P) Creed Nass (Johnny Hart) 17', Logan Johnson (Nate Szwed) 55'
Shots: Pinelands, 12-6
Saves: (M) Rich Mariotti 6; (P) Gavin Harris 3

 

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