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HOLMDEL -- With two disappointing performances in two tries this season vs. opponents ranked in the current Shore Sports Network Top 10, the Rumson-Fair Haven boys soccer team needed a dose of the familiar.

On Thursday night, the Bulldogs finally got it: a game under the lights, against its greatest rival and -- perhaps most importantly -- a return to its underdog role.

Facing a Holmdel team that had not conceded a goal in its first six games, Rumson twice found a crack in the Hornets defense, including a golden goal by senior Jacob Brown 34 seconds into the second overtime period that gave the Bulldogs a much-needed, 2-1 win over one of the Shore's best.

"Last year, championship, it was the first time," Brown said. "Now, we're trying to establish dominance. They (Holmdel) have been dominating for a lot of years and we're trying to establish our own dominance."

Rumson-Fair Haven senior Jacob Brown. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Rumson-Fair Haven senior Jacob Brown. (Photo: Tom Smith |

Rumson's first two games against opponents currently nestled in the rankings were not just losses, but downright ugly losses. Freehold Township slammed the Bulldogs, 5-0, on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 10 and one week later, Point Boro put up four goals in the first half in a 4-1 win over Rumson.

"We came out a little cocky at the beginning of the year," Rumson coach Jeff Soares said. "We're up high in the rankings and we have nine of 11 starters come back and we just assume we're going to stay up there. I kept telling them that we're going to have a bulls-eye, everybody is going to come at us at 100 miles-and-hour, and that's not something we're used to."

On Thursday, the Bulldogs were ready for a battle that -- like the 2021 NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II final between the same two teams-- required more than just the standard 80 minutes to settle.

"We were pretty convinced we were going to win this game coming in," Brown said. "They hadn't conceded and scored 27 goals, so we knew once we got one, they were going to fall apart. We're more battle-tested than them and we thought we could outdo them in that way."

For the entirety of the second half and the first overtime period, Rumson faced a stiff wind in its collective face and managed to hold Holmdel to one goal during that stretch while also scoring on the Shore's final unscored-upon team heading into the night.

Once the first overtime period ended, the wind shifted in Rumson's favor and so too did the confidence level.

"I wanted the wind for the first half of overtime and we didn't get it," Soares said. "I told them to defend for 10 minutes and that's why we celebrated after the first half of overtime. We knew we were getting the wind and that was going to be a big difference in how we could attack."

Rumson never let Holmdel settle into the final overtime period, going right on the attack. Senior Alec Pentikis -- the golden goal hero in the memorable sectional final a season ago -- got his chance to end the game, but Holmdel senior goalkeeper Ilan Golden saved a shot that would have looked strikingly similar to Pentikis's championship-winner last fall.

Holmdel, however, was not in the clear. Brown pushed up and saw another chance to attack, stealing the ball, taking a touch and looking up at a clear shot at the goal. With Golden charging hard, Brown slipped a low, firm shot into the goal for the game-winner.

Brown has been a reliable source of scoring for Rumson over the past two seasons, but was needed on the back line Thursday night with starting senior center back Reece Moroney going through concussion protocol. Despite playing a defensive role over the last two games, Brown has found a way to stay involved in the attack. He assisted three goals in Rumson's 5-1 win over Monmouth Regional on Tuesday and on Thursday, delivered an even greater offensive contribution from his spot in the back.

"Reece Moroney is one of the best center backs in the Shore and the state," Soares said. "The kid is just a freak athlete, but he is out with a concussion, so Brown stepped up and said, 'Coach, whatever this team needs, I'll do it.' He had three assists as an outside back (on Tuesday) and he had the game-winning goal as an outside back today. The kid as a nose for the goal."

On top of playing a new role, Brown was playing through an illness, which he called described as a bad cold that he began experiencing on Wednesday.

"I think it's the biggest rivalry in the Shore," Brown said. "There is no way I'm missing this game. I could be on my death bed and I would get up to play this game. I love this. All game, I was just thinking I wanted to be the one to score the goal."

Brown's overtime heroics were made possible by a pair of goals during the second half. The Bulldogs struck first and the first goal developed in a fashion similar to the game-winner. Sophomore Ronan Hogg took the ball away from the Holmdel defense and sprung loose on a breakaway that he finished for a 1-0 Rumson lead in the 48th minute. The goal was the first given up by Holmdel during the 2022 season.

"Those little effort plays win you games," Brown said. "We made a lot of mistakes. I don't think this was our best game, but those little moments win you games. They (Holmdel) played great, I've got to give it to them. They made two bad mistakes and we capitalized and we won."

Holmdel drew even in the 64th minute thanks to one of its own defenders pushing up to hit a big shot. Sophomore Jackson O'Connor held the ball 35 yards away from the goal, waited for a clearing and ripped a shot that curled into the top left corner of the goal for an equalizer.

Over the subsequent 25 minutes -- including the first 10 minutes of overtime -- Holmdel was the team to nearly pull out the victory. Its best chance came in the fourth minute of overtime, with junior David Weiner working himself open for a 16-yard rip that skipped just wide of the left post.

In addition to Rumson's defense keeping Holmdel in check, junior goalkeeper Cole Herman kept up his end.

Despite its two rough Saturday outings against ranked opponents, Rumson now finds itself as the frontrunner to win a second straight Class A Central division championship. The Bulldogs are halfway through the division schedule and still have division games remaining against Red Bank Catholic, Wall and Raritan.

"When I put this schedule together, I knew we were going to take our lumps, but I wanted us to be battle-tested," Soares said. "I felt like last year, when we played Delran, we weren't battle-tested. Now, we may take our lumps against some good teams, but we'll be prepared for a state-tournament run."


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