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A few days before the start of his senior high-school soccer season, Shore Regional boys captain Nick DiNapoli got an alert on his phone. It was a text from his head coach, Christian Pontier.

Based on what Pontier says of the message, it was not one you are likely to hear from a lot of head coaches toward a captain. But it was poignant enough that DiNapoli not only saved it but reminded his coach of it after Wednesday’s win over Point Pleasant Beach in the Central Jersey Group I semifinal.

“I basically just told him to just stay with me and don’t give up on these guys,” Pontier said. “We are really, really young and I knew we were probably going to take our lumps early, but I told Nick, ‘If you stay positive, keep encouraging these guys and keep coming to practice and showing you believe in them, we have a chance to do something big at the end of the year.’

“He (DiNapoli) just came up to me and said, ‘Coach, I still have that text.’”

Tom Smith |
Tom Smith |

On top of graduated most of its 2021 starting lineup, Shore lost two standout underclassmen from the 2021 roster to academy soccer, leaving DiNapoli, Conner Katz and Max DeOliveira as a trio of seniors who would be surrounded by an extremely green lineup, plus proven junior goalkeeper Kevin Barfield. Factor in a divisional schedule that includes Group II contenders Holmdel, Rumson-Fair Haven and Wall, and Shore’s young roster had its hands full during the early part of the season.

All-in-all, the Blue Devils did indeed struggle, but it was not hopeless. The losses to Wall and Rumson were each by a margin of two goals; tied a Point Pleasant Boro team that won a share of the Class B South championship and was seeded No. 5 in the Shore Conference Tournament; Shore even knocked off Toms River East, which won a share of the Class A South championship.

It wasn’t enough to get Shore into the Shore Conference Tournament, but the Blue Devils entered the Shore Conference Coaches’ Cup and made it to the championship game with a penalty-kicks win over Pinelands and a straight-up victory over St. John Vianney before losing to Class A North’s Freehold Boro, 3-2, in the final.

All of those challenges set the Blue Devils up for the state tournament and since the start of the tournament, the Central Jersey Group I competition has barely made the Blue Devils sweat. They handled Somerset Tech, 6-1, in round one, then dominated top-seeded Dunellen in the sectional quarterfinals, 7-1.

In the sectional semifinals, Shore faced another upstart in No. 12 seed Point Pleasant Beach and overwhelmed the Garnet Gulls, 5-0.

“I knew if we could just stay positive and not get too discouraged early on, we could do really well in Group I,” Pontier said. “It’s a really young and inexperienced team, but we have guys can really play and they are a joy to be around. This is probably the most fun I have ever had coaching a team because these guys just want to get better.”

The run to the final has put all of Shore’s layers on display: DiNapoli and Katz have had signature moments, Barfield has controlled the box, and the kids are playing like proven veterans. Freshmen Cooper Attaway and Santino Scarponi are two of the team’s top creators, sophomores Stephen Molnar has been an assist machine and junior Ty Jackson is one of many players who saw little-to-no varsity action a year ago and is, nevertheless, contributing at a high level in 2022.

Shore junior Ty Jackson. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Shore junior Ty Jackson. (Photo: Tom Smith |

“I didn’t play a single minute of varsity last year, so regardless of who was coming back, I just wanted to make the most of my opportunity,” Jackson said. “We have a lot of guys who were hungry for their shot and we have just been getting better and better.”

Now, Shore will try to finish off its first sectional championship since winning the Central Group I title in 2014. The program has been to a sectional final in the seven seasons since, with the Blue Devils making it to the 2018 Central Group II final as a No. 14 seed. That year, they ran into a juggernaut Holmdel team that went on to win its second straight Group II championship and finished No. 1 in the state.

On Saturday, Shore will again take on defending sectional champion on the road, but unlike in 2018, the Blue Devils actually have a chance to win this time. Florence is coming off a hard-fought, 1-0 win at Roselle Park in Wednesday’s sectional semifinal and will be glad to return home to host the championship game. The Flashes have won 15 of 19 matches this season and of the games they did not win, three were against teams seeded either No. 1 or No. 2 in their NJSIAA section: a one-goal loss to Bordentown (No. 1 in Central Group II), a one-goal loss to Rancocas Valley (No. 1 and a finalist in South Group IV) and a draw vs. Cinnaminson (No. 2 in South Jersey II).

Florence also picked up an early-season win over Bordentown, so of all the teams in Central Group I, the Flashes are by far the most proven in the field.


NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I Championship

No. 8 Shore at No. 3 Florence, Noon

Shore (8-9-2)

Head Coach: Christian Pontier

Last Sectional Championship: 2014

Road to the Final: Defeated No. 9 Somerset Tech, 6-0; No. 1 Dunellen, 7-1; No. 12 Point Beach, 5-0.

Players to Watch

Nick DiNapoli, Sr., Forward (11 goals, 6 assists)

Cooper Attaway, Fr., Forward (12 goals, 2 assists)

Santino Scarponi, Fr., Midfield (5 goals, 5 assists)

Conner Katz, Sr., Defense (3 goals, 5 assists)

Ty Jackson, Jr., Midfield (4 goals, 2 assists)

Stephen Molnar, So., Midfield (3 goals, 9 assists)

Kevin Barfield, Jr., Goalkeeper (4 shutouts)


Florence (15-3-1)

Head Coach: Kyle Ballay

Last Sectional Championship: 2021

Road to the Final: Defeated No. 14 Henry Hudson, 7-1; No. 6 Manville, 3-1; No. 2 Roselle Park, 1-0.

Players to Watch

Chris Krall, Sr., Midfield (19 goals, 15 assists)

Derek Tindall, So., Forward (17 goals, 3 assists)

Ryan Boracci, Sr., Midfield (7 goals, 14 assists)

Avi Harr, Sr., Midfield (6 goals, 1 assist)

Ryan Moore, Sr., Defense (1 goal, 1 assist)

Matt Conti, Sr., Goalkeeper (4 shutouts; 1 goal)


SSN Prediction: Florence, 2-1


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