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POINT PLEASANT BORO -- Jared Elliot is a vocal leader on the field for the Point Pleasant Boro boys soccer team, but after a big opening-day win for the Panthers, he was a man of few words.

More specifically, he was a man of two words.

"We're back," Elliot said.

Elliot led a first-half burst that created the tying and winning goals for Point Boro Thursday in a 2-1, season-opening win over defending Shore Conference Class B South champion Lacey.

The victory is a significant first step -- albeit just one out of seven division games in which Point Boro will have to perform -- toward the Panthers claiming their first B South division championship since 2016. From 2012 to 2016, Point Boro dominated B South with five straight division championships before relinquishing the top spot in 2017 and enduring three straight losing seasons from 2018 to 2020.

"Last year, the mentality was more 'Can we do it?' and this year, it's 'Let's go out and do it,'" Point Boro coach Pete Casalino said. "What's nice is the older guys have enough confidence to know they can do it and the younger guys are naïve enough to not even think there is a possibility they can't do it. We have that youthful exuberance, but also that senior experience."

This year's squad returns eight starters from a 2021 team that was right in the thick of the division race before letting a home match vs. Lacey slip through its fingers, 2-1. The 2022 rematch came on opening day Thursday and the Panthers made sure the same result did not happen.

Thursday did not start in the most ideal of fashions, with Point Boro committing a foul inside the 18-yard box eight minutes into the match. Lacey senior Ethan Riley converted the penalty kick for a 1-0 Lions lead, but the Panthers were not panicked.

"For some reason, it feels like, whenever we play Lacey, whoever scores first loses," Casalino said. "We jumped on them last year and they ended up coming back in the second half, so I was actually pretty calm about giving up the early goal. There is a lot of time left at that point and I think it got the attention of our guys a little bit."

In the 18th minute, Point Boro's persistence paid off. Junior John Ward earned a corner kick after beating his defender to the right end-line, which set up a chance for Elliot to serve the ball in. The senior -- who dished out 14 assists as a junior -- drove a low liner across the front of the goal and junior John Witkowski charged into the fray, threw his head at the ball at the near right post and punched it in for the equalizer.

In the 27th minute, Elliot got on the other end of a perfect pass for the game-winner. Junior Chase Norling pushed up from his outside right back position and played a diagonal pass toward the left corner of the six-yard box. Elliot tracked it down and one-timed a shot back to the far right corner of the goal to make it 2-1.

From there, it was more of a struggle for Point Boro to protect its lead. Junior goalkeeper Andrew Holper saved a 23-yard free kick by Lacey senior Logan Gross late in the first half and smothered a close-range shot off a dangerous cross early in the second.

While trying to hold onto a one-goal lead, Point Boro also had multiple players limping off and on with leg cramps at some point during the second half, including Elliot.

"We switched up the formation in the second half because we were going to be going into the breeze and I knew that they were probably going to throw the kitchen sink to get a goal," Casalino said. "It's something that we practiced during the preseason -- being able to adjust our formation and style to the game situation. I like that there are a lot of guys on this team who can play multiple positions."

Lacey's golden opportunity came over the final six minutes after Point Boro senior center back Brett Leschinski was issued his second yellow card of the half and sent off, leaving the Panthers with just 10 men from the 75th minute on.

During one sequence in the final two minutes, Holper was off his line with the ball 40 yards away from the goal, but the rushed shot sailed wide and Lacey never saw a better chance during the remaining seconds.

The opening-day win over the defending Class B South champions is a significant first step for a team that hopes a division title will be just the first of multiple championships it wins in 2022. Casalino has made sure his players will see top competition over the course of the regular season, with a match-up against defending Central Group II champion Rumson-Fair Haven a week from Saturday and another vs. Class A South favorite Toms River East in late October.

"We're going to have to come in and compete every single day," Casalino said. "These guys are going to realize that you are preparing to make a run in the Shore Conference (Tournament) or in Central Jersey (Group II) because you just played three really good teams in a row. That's what we're trying to be ready for."


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