Boys Soccer – Shore Ends 53-Year Drought, Reaches Group I Final
WEST LONG BRANCH -- Kevin Barfield's junior season ended with the Shore Regional goalkeeper conceding six goals in the NJSIAA Group I semifinal game, which has been a roadblock round for the Blue Devils since they last reached the group final stage of the state tournament in 1970.
On Wednesday, with Shore again one win away from a Group I championship, Barfield picked up his team with a shutout effort and a pair of his underclass teammates made his efforts stand up in the final 20 minutes.
Ten minutes after a pair of momentous saves by Barfield, sophomore Cooper Attaway knocked in the first goal of the game and classmate Santino Scarponi later added the capper as Shore upended Palmyra, 2-0, to reach the Group I semifinal for the first time in 53 years.
"This is all we have been talking about since the season started," Attaway said. "This was the goal ever since our season ended last year."
Shore has a long, tortured history in the group semifinal round -- one that includes four consecutive Group I semifinal losses from 1994 to 1997. During Pontier's 14-year tenure, Shore previously won two Central Jersey Group I championships and lost to Haddon Township in both the 2014 and 2022 Group I semifinals.
All those past shortcomings weighed on the Blue Devils for 60 scoreless minutes Wednesday, but Barfield helped ease the tension with a dazzling save in the 52nd. Five minutes earlier, Palmyra sophomore goalkeeper Deakon Haines saved a close-range header by Attaway by scrambling for a diving stop.
Barfield then returned the favor with a diving save on a shot headed for the upper left corner of the goal, followed by a save on a header from in front of the goal 30 seconds later.
A third-year starter, Barfield has been a standout goalkeeper who was voted as a Third-Team All-Monmouth selection by the Shore Conference Coaches for 2023. After ending his 2022 season with six goals allowed, he has allowed just one goal during the state tournament.
"I'm going to miss him a lot," Pontier said of Barfield. "He has been my starter for three years. He played great as a sophomore and he just kept getting better and better. He has kept us in a lot of games -- tight games that maybe we shouldn't have been in. I'm just super happy for him, because he is a great kid. He played like a champion today."
In the 62nd minute, Shore finally broke the tension with the game's first goal. After Shore successfully defended a set piece, the Blue Devils set out on the counterattack. Junior Riley Murphy took a pass in the middle of the field with his back to the goal and played Attaway up the right flank.
Attaway carried the ball and his defender to the end-line and played what he intended to be a cross. The ball, however, struck the leg of the Panthers defender and redirected past Haines and inside the near post for the first goal of the match.
"To be completely honest, I did mean to cross it and it hit the defender's leg and went in," Attaway said. "I'll take it, though."
From there, Shore's defense cut off all lanes to the goal for Palmyra and in the 74th minute, Scarponi delivered the finishing blow. After a foul 10 yards outside the top of the 18-yard box, Scarponi curled a 28-yard free kick into the upper right corner of the goal for a 2-0 Shore lead.
"This year, we had a little more experience in those tight games and it helped us," Pontier said. "Now we're on to the final."
Attaway and Scarponi are only sophomores, but have already built accomplished state-tournament résumés. Attaway has now scored four goals in each of the last two NJSIAA Tournaments, while Scarponi's goal was the fourth of his postseason career and first of this postseason.
With freshman year success already in their high-school rearview mirror, this season has been a continuation for Attaway and Scarponi as big-game scorers and players.
"Last year, we had a lot of newcomers," Attaway said. "All of us have stepped up big-time this year because we have that experience from last year. That Haddon Township game bothered us a lot and I don't want to let that happen again."
"Two years and two sectional titles is not a bad résumé so far," Pontier said. "They are excellent players an they show up in big games."
While it has been 53 years since Shore's last Group I championship appearance, the Blue Devils have never won a group championship despite a considerable collection of sectional titles.
Barfield, center back Ty Jackson and midfielders Maxx Eichenbaum and Sean Newbert are the seniors behind Shore's 2023 season, while the rest of the lineup is comprised of players who can play for Shore again next season.
"I'm really happy for the seniors," Pontier said. "Not many players get to say they played their last game in the actual last game of the season in the entire state. We're going to enjoy the moment and we're going to go out with a positive game plan and hopefully come home with the title."
Despite how young they are, Attaway, Scarpino and Shore's core of young players are playing with urgency this postseason. After playing a challenging schedule that includes a win over Group III finalist Robbinsville, the Blue Devils have been ready for anything this postseason.
"I thought we did a great job, we hustled and we were everywhere," Pontier said. "Those guys in the middle, they really were everywhere. That tough schedule that we played, some of those games, I didn't want to lose, but in the long run, they helped."
Shore 2, Palmyra 0
Goals (Assists): (S) Cooper Attaway (Riley Murphy) 62'; Santino Scarponi (free kick) 74'
Shots: Shore, 9-7
Saves: (P) Deakon Haines 2; (S) Kevin Barfield 5