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South Jersey Group IV Championship

No. 11 Cherokee (13-5) at No. 5 Toms River North (15-2-1), 2 p.m.

Two years ago, Toms River North orchestrated one of the more memorable sectional championship runs in the history of the NJSIAA Soccer Tournament when it won the South Jersey Group IV title as a No. 16 seed and capped the title run with an overtime golden goal in the championship game at Egg Harbor. Each game during that title run was tight, with the first two wins coming by 2-0 margins and the last two ending at 2-1 on late game-winners by the Mariners.

Last year, Toms River North again won a sectional championship, this time beating Southern, 3-2, in overtime to capture the Central East Group IV championship in the modified 2020 NJSIAA postseason. For the second straight year, all of Toms River North’s state tournament matches were decided by no more than two goals, including a pair of one-goal games to finish off the run.

Toms River North senior A.J. Emnace. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

This year, there has been a lot less anxiety for Mariners coach Joe Mahon during his team’s push into the title game. Toms River North has exploded for 15 goals in three games before a scoring rampage by senior A.J. Emnace, who has lit up the competition to the tune of eight goals in those three matches. The Mariners began the tournament with a 7-0 win over a capable Gloucester Tech side, then hammered Egg Harbor, 6-1, in a rematch of the 2019 title game. It took a half for Toms River North to get going on Monday, but Emnace struck in the 50th minute on the way to a 2-0 Mariners win over No. 1 seed Clearview.

While Toms River North looks to finish off a dominant run to a third straight sectional championship, Cherokee is hoping to mimic the 2019 Mariners team by winning the sectional title as a No. 11 seed. Thursday will mark nearly 10 years to the day the last time these two teams met in a state tournament game, with Cherokee fighting off the Mariners, 2-1, in the sectional semifinals on the way to a 25-0-2 season and Group IV championship. One year earlier, Cherokee shocked the Mariners in Toms River by scoring in the final seconds of regulation to win, 3-2, in the South Group IV quarterfinals – a win that helped spring the Chiefs to the first of their two straight Group IV championships.

 

South Jersey Non-Public A Championship

No. 3 Notre Dame (18-2-2) at No. 1 CBA (19-1), 1:30 p.m.

When the NJSIAA Tournament brackets were first released, the potential South Jersey Non-Public A final looked like one for the ages. It still might be, but it won’t be the matchup that was widely expected. Notre Dame spoiled the party by shocking Pingry – the No. 1 team in the state – with a golden goal in the sectional semifinal to earn a trip to the championship game Thursday at CBA. St. Augustine nearly made it two upsets by jumping on top of CBA and taking the Colts to overtime before a golden goal by Dylan Cupo sent the No. 1 seed to the final.

Leading up to the sectional quarterfinal, CBA had been dominating its competition and it might have been easy to forget amid that stretch that early in the year, the Colts were routinely coming from behind to win close games. Those comebacks helped get CBA started on this memorable ride during which the Colts have yet to lose to a team from the state of New Jersey (18-0) and will try to extend their unbeaten streak within the state to 32 matches dating back to the first game of 2020.

CBA senior Dylan Cupo (11) battles Toms River North senior Jimmy Ruppe. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

CBA has been to the championship game in South Jersey Non-Public A in each of the last six years that the tournament has been played and the season-ending loss to St. Augustine in 2019 ended a run of four straight sectional titles and subsequent trips to the Non-Public A championship game. The first of those six straight sectional final appearances came against Notre Dame in 2014, which was the last year the Irish advanced to the state final. The Colts have long since exacted their revenge for that 5-2 loss, so Thursday’s game represents a new story with new characters.

Notre Dame’s season has been the inverse of CBA’s in that the Irish opened the season by crushing their opponents and have, more recently, taken to playing close games. Notre Dame won its first 11 matches of 2021 by an insane average of 6.36 goals per game and after improving to 16-1 win a 3-1 Mercer County Tournament win over West Windsor-Plainsboro South, the Irish had not won a game by fewer than two goals. The last four Notre Dame games, however, have all either been decided by a single goal or by penalty kicks, including 2-1 wins over St. Peter’s Prep and Pingry during this tournament.

On the other side, the goal St. Augustine scored late in the first half on Monday at CBA was the first goal the Colts allowed since Oct. 7 – a stretch of seven games that included the entire Shore Conference Tournament. Declan Kelly and Jack McGagh lead a defense that has gone from inexperienced and prone to the occasional mistake to a unit that gives up next to nothing while feeding a devastating attack.

Thursday’s final is noteworthy for CBA, which is likely to be playing its final varsity game on its hallowed grass pitch. Should the Colts win, the next game will be the Non-Public A final at Kean University and whenever this season ends, the new turf field with stadium lights is due to be completed well before the start of 2022. CBA is hoping to close out its soon-to-be-old home with a championship victory – fitting because prior to 2019, championship games in the Non-Public sections were played at neutral sites.

 

South Jersey Non-Public B Championship

No. 7 Princeton Day (11-11) at No. 5 Ranney (11-4-1), 2 p.m.

Ranney has been building toward this season for the past three seasons, when four of its key seniors – Tommy Boyan, Jett Pacifico, Joe Celler and Charle Anyichie – transferred in as sophomores. While it hasn’t gone completely as planned, the Panthers are sitting on 11 wins and are about to host the South Jersey Non-Public B sectional championship game for the first time in school history Thursday in Tinton Falls.

Two years ago as sophomores, this group of seniors helped Ranney win the team’s first Class B Central championship and appeared poised to take the program to new heights in 2020 and 2021. Last year, however, the Panthers were limited to a schedule of only Class B Central opponents and the before a big two-game showdown against St. Rose, the entire Ranney athletic program was shut down for two weeks due to COVID-19 protocol. The Panthers returned to the field in time for the NJSIAA Playoffs, but their season ended with a 3-0 loss to St. Rose.

Ranney senior Tommy Boyan. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Ranney lost two division games this season, including a 2-1 loss to St. Rose that clinched the Purple Roses the Class B Central title, but the team bounced back. With a division championship already on their high school résumé, the seniors have been fixated on winning a state championship and took a huge step by knocking off St. Rose on Monday, 1-0.

Standing in the way is Princeton Day, which is operating in its first season as an NJSIAA member school and, thus, is playing for a sectional championship in its first ever appearance in the NJSIAA Tournament. A unique side story to Thursday’s championship game is the coaching matchup, which pits a pair of former Ocean County standouts in the sideline matchup. While Ranney is led by former Toms River South and Rutgers standout Donny Gray, Princeton Day is under the guidance of former Monsignor Donovan and Stockton standout Brian Thomsen, whose younger brother Scott also starred at Christian Brothers Academy and the University of Virginia before moving on to a professional career.

Both programs are playing in the sectional final for the first time and the winner is likely to run up against perennial power Gill St. Bernard in Sunday’s championship game – assuming the Knights can get past Newark Academy in the North Non-Public B sectional final.