EGG HARBOR TWP. - Ten years ago, Joe Mahon was a first-year assistant at Toms River High School North under head boys soccer coach Dave Mitchell. The two were different personalities as coaches - Mitchell reserved and understated and Mahon loud and energetic.

In their first and only year together as a coaching tandem, Mitchell and Mahon led Toms River North to a Central Jersey Group IV championship by winning four straight games as the No. 1 seed in the section, culminating in an overtime victory over an imposing Rancocas Valley team.

Fast forward to Friday, when Mahon found himself thinking about his former coaching companion. A month after Toms River North lost to Toms River South in a classic overtime Group IV semifinal, Mitchell passed away from cancer and Mahon became the next head coach of the Mariner program under the most somber of circumstances.

Toms River North had never been able to replicate that 2009 season since, that is until Friday. Ten years after Mitchell led his top-seeded Mariners to an overtime home championship win with his senior-laden team, Mahon did it his way: with a 16th-seeded also-ran to four road wins and one of the most memorable sectional title runs ever.

"I thought about Dave a lot today," Mahon said. "It's been ten years since that sectional championship and with everything that's happened during this run, maybe this was meant to be."

Facing a one-goal deficit Friday at second-seeded Egg Harbor, Toms River North rallied to force overtime and junior Parker Nickelsen etched his name in Mariners boys soccer lore with a 22-yard, golden-goal strike during the first overtime to end an improbable championship run.

Ten years after Toms River North's 2-1 win over Rancocas Valley to win Central Jersey Group IV, Nickelsen's goal gave Toms River North a 2-1 overtime win over Egg Harbor to make the Mariners a 16th-seeded South Jersey Group IV champion. The last No. 16 seed to win a sectional championship in boys soccer was Mendham in 2012, when the tournament was seeded based on winning percentage rather than power points.

"I told the kids, 'You are part of history now," Mahon said. "You beat the one, the two, the four and the eight seed - all on the road - to win a sectional championship as a 16 seed. I don't think that's been done and if it has, it's rare. It's a brotherhood that they will be a part of forever. In 20 years, they will look back and remember this. It's a crazy, crazy story and they will take it with them wherever they go."

Toms River North ranked No. 18 in power points in the South Jersey field and only made the NJSIAA Tournament because it had a .500 record (6-6-1) after 13 games, meaning the Mariners automatically took priority over Brick Memorial and Vineland in the bracket.

Photo provided by Toms River North soccer.

From barely missing the tournament, to beating No. 1 Clearview, No. 8 Cherry Hill East and No. 4 Jackson Memorial on the road, Toms River North authored a memorable story regardless of whether or not the Mariners won or lost on Friday. After the first half of play, it appeared they would indeed have to settle for a moral victory.

Instead, Toms River North came out the aggressor in the second half and earned a penalty kick in the first five minutes. Any momentum Toms River North established in the early going took a major hit when Egg Harbor goalkeeper Jeff Castro saved two penalty kicks by senior Logan Mack. Castro was called for moving toward the kicker before the kick before he saved the first attempt and responded by saving the second one as well.

After failing to capitalize on two opportunities, Mack bounced back in the 49th minute. Sophomore Nico Gonzalez beat a trio of defenders along the end-line and crossed the ball to the front of the goal, where Mack headed it in for the equalizer.

"I think he was down on himself for about two or three minutes and then he snapped out of it and realized, 'Okay, I've got to play,'" Mahon said. "He put himself in the right spot and headed it in. That's the kind of effort you need out of your seniors."

Toms River North continued to assert itself during the second half after absorbing a wave of offense from Egg Harbor in the first. Sophomore goalkeeper Dawson Kaniuk did his part in keeping his team in the game, particularly during the first 40 minutes. Outside of Kevin Aguairiano's goal in the 12th off an assist by Ahmad Brock.

"For the first 20 minutes, they were all over us," Mahon said. "We just said, 'Let's stay in the game. Let's just keep grinding.' Dawson came up with a couple of huge saves in goal, we got to halftime and in the second half, we just started dominating them, I thought. They looked like they wore down a little bit and our guys never let up."

All that set the stage for Nickelsen, who beat two defenders before striking a 22-yard volley that froze Castro and tickled the far left side netting. It was the third game in which Nickelsen scored a goal during this Mariners run, which leads the team.

Toms River North will try to extend its season one more game when it takes on Central Jersey champion Hunterdon Central - a 2-0 winner over Long Branch on Friday - in the Group IV semifinal Wednesday at Rowan University.

As Mahon contemplated the way this run unfolded, he couldn't help but go back to the coach that brought him to Toms River North 10 years ago and how his efforts and the efforts of everyone that came before and since had a hand in returning the Mariners to championship glory.

"I owe Dave a lot for giving me a shot as an assistant," said Mahon, who was previously the head coach at Pinelands. "I immediately thought about all the players who were in the program these last ten years and even going back farther than that. Guys have been reaching out all week and I have just been telling them, 'You are a part of this.' This is everybody's championship - everyone who wore the jersey and was part of the teams that came so close to winning in 2014 and went deep into the Shore Conference Tournaments. They were all important in getting the guys here today."

 

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