MARLBORO TWP. - By the time the clock read all zeroes at the end of the second overtime Saturday, the Raritan boys soccer team was down to nine players allowed on the field at one time and had just about squandered a significant shot advantage it established during the first half of its Shore Conference Tournament opening-round game at Marlboro.

None of that mattered anymore. All that mattered was that the Rockets had a collection of composed shooters and a sophomore goalkeeper who was not phased by the most intense of high-pressure situations.

Gavin Hersey saved two of the five shots he faced during a round of penalty kicks and Connor Smith was the fourth and final Raritan player to bury his penalty chance, which propelled the Rockets - the No. 19 seed in the SCT - over No. 12 Marlboro and into Wednesday's round of 16. Raritan and Marlboro finished in a 2-2 draw after 100 minutes and ended the Mustangs, 4-3, in the shootout.

Raritan goalkeeper Gavin Hersey celebrates his first save of the shootout. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Raritan goalkeeper Gavin Hersey celebrates his first save of the shootout. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"We just knew that we had to stick it out," said senior captain and center fullback Zack May, who scored the tying penalty kick in the 77th minute. "I knew I had to bury my (penalty kick) and our whole approach in overtime was trying to get the game to PK's. We practice PK's three out of the four times we practice per week and we knew we would capitalize."

Hersey saved the the second and fourth Marlboro attempts in the penalty round to put his team in a position to win it on its fourth try. Marlboro freshman Nick Tango stopped Raritan's fourth shot to swing the pressure back to the Rockets, especially after Max Spivek hit on Marlboro's fifth kick to tie the shootout at 3-3.

"I tried to keep the pressure off myself because I know the chances of saving a penalty kick aren't that great," Hersey said. "I tried to pay attention to the way they were approaching, the way their hips were facing, but it was mostly just guesswork."

On the fifth and final attempt of the round, Rockets junior Connor Smith stepped up and calmly buried his shot to the lower left of the goal to set off a celebration by the visiting team, which will now travel to play No. 5 Freehold Township in Wednesday's round of 16.

The shootout round was just the culmination of what was a dramatic, competitive, back-and-forth and, at times, controversial 100 minutes that was not enough to settle the score between the two teams. After Raritan owned the first half in taking a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard, Marlboro came out the aggressor in the second half and grabbed a 2-1 lead by the 59th minute.

Raritan jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a 20-yard blast by senior Jake Fortune in the 19th minute and controlled the first half with a 9-2 advantage in shots.

Marlboro, however, responded with the equalizer in the 48th when Tate Berman slid into a scrum and poked the ball into the goal from point-blank range. The Mustangs then took the lead in the 59th when Brandon Grine settled a cross from Oscar Ozbay and punched it in from inside the six-yard box.

"We definitely came into the second half complacent," Hersey said. "After facing the first five minutes of their pressure in the first half, we dominated and we went into the second half thinking that was just going to continue. Marlboro must have done something at halftime to adjust, because they were much more effective in the second half."

Things got worse for Raritan when senior Nick Bavaro drew his second yellow card of the match in the 64th and the Rockets were faced with the prospect of having scoring a goal with 10 men on the field in order to survive the round.

They got their chance when Anthony Sparacino went down just inside the 18-yard box, which prompted a foul call and a penalty kick. May stepped up and buried the tying penalty strike just out of the reach of a diving Tango. Tango has saved two penalty kicks this season but May was not phased.

"We knew he was a freshman and he is going save a bunch of those in his career," May said. "Right now though, we weren't going to try to go away from what we do based on the keeper."

Overtime was mostly uneventful, but Hersey came up with one huge save on a close-range, near-post shot in the 84th minute.

The other key play during the 20-minute overtime had no impact on Saturday's game, but could hurt Raritan on Wednesday. In the last minute of the second overtime, senior center midfielder Marco Vasto was issued a red card for what the far-side referee said was throwing a punch at Ozbay. The video shot by Shore Sports Network appears to show that Vasto merely attempts to shove Ozbay away after the two were tangled up.

He also appears to catch Ozbay with an elbow in the struggle but it is not clear whether there was any intent.

Saturday's win continues a run by the Rockets that seemed far-fetched when the Rockets were 0-4 after their first four games of the season. First-year coach Gregg Cohen made some adjustments and his team responded by going 6-2 over its next eight to qualify for the tournament. Over the last four games, Fortune has caught fire by scoring six goals, with three in a win over Middletown South, two in Wednesday's win over Red Bank and one more on Saturday.

Raritan will try to repeat what Monmouth Regional did last season when the Falcons won a first-round road game and defeated Freehold Township on the road in the round-of-16 without a key player available. The Falcons were missing 30-goal scorer Joel Burgos in their 2017 upset, so there is hope for the Rockets.

"I am a senior and I'm not going to get a chance to do this again," May said. "I think for me and the rest of the seniors, it was just a matter not wanting to leave anything on the table in our last year. We wanted to go out giving it our best shot and now we have a great opportunity."


Box Score

Raritan 2, Marlboro 2 (Raritan advances on penalties, 4-3)

Raritan (6-6-1)110024
Marlboro (6-5-3)020023

Goals (Assists): (R) Jake Fortune 19', Zack May (PK) 77'; (M) Tate Bergman 48', Brandon Grine (Oscar Ozbay) 59'
Shots: Raritan, 14-12
Saves: (R) Gavin Hersey 4; (M) Nick Tango 6
Penalty Kicks: (R) Zack May, Anthony Sparacino, Jake Fortune, Connor Smith; (M) Max Shushkovsky, Brandon Grine, Max Spivek


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