NEPTUNE -- As a sophomore on a team that was making its first appearance as a program in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals in 12 years, Nick Turturro did not let the weight of last year's SCT semifinal vs. Holmdel hold him down.

Turturro scored one of Howell's three goals in that 2022 semifinal, so when he and his second-seeded Rebels returned to Memorial Field in Neptune Wednesday -- this time to face No. 3 Toms River North in the 2023 semifinal -- the Howell junior and his team were not phased.

Turturro scored the first goal of the game in the middle of the first half and then assisted a crucial tack-on goal by senior teammate Bryce Ocholla that proved to be the difference Wednesday in a 2-1 win over Toms River North.

"We got here early and as soon as I stepped off the bus, I couldn't stop smiling," Turturro said. "It felt so good to be here again. It's been a year since I have been on this field. Last year was a great experience, but this year, I have a bigger role on this team and I am stepping up to it."

Howell junior Nick Turturro. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Howell junior Nick Turturro. (Photo: Tom Smith |

Howell moves on to the SCT championship game for the second straight year and will play top-seeded Christian Brothers Academy for the second straight year as well. The two Shore Conference Class A North rivals will clash on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Memorial Field.

After both teams felt one another out for the first 20 minutes of the match, Howell made its move and cashed in in the 23rd thanks to a finish by Turturro with his off foot.

Junior Tye Maser, dropped a pass over a defender and right to the feet of Turturro, who carried a defender to the left side of the box. The left-footed striker cut the ball back toward the middle and slipped a right-footed shot to the far lower-right corner of the goal for the 1-0 Howell lead.

"Knowing that they know that I'm a left-footed striker, I had the ball on my left and I knew (the defender) thought I was going to shoot," Turturro said. "I gave a big fake, cut it back and I didn't have to look up. I knew where I was on the field and the goalie didn't even have time to make a move. I have trained a lot with my right foot, but I don't hit that shot too often, so it felt really good."

"He is not going to stop," Howell coach Rich Yuro said of Turturro. "He is not the type of kid who is just going to pick his chances and hope he gets something. He is not going to stop. Just on the sheer amount of chances he is going to create and the amount of times he is on the ball, he is always going to make something happen. He is fast, he is dangerous, the defense always has to respect that and given him a little more space, which is how he got that first goal. He didn't have much space but it was enough space."

Howell nursed the one-goal lead for the next 50-plus minutes, with goalkeeper Patrick Martin turning back one particularly threatening sequence with a kick-save of a shot by Toms River North top scorer Anthony Ruggiero.

The Howell defense as a whole made it difficult for Toms River North's top scoring threats -- Ruggiero, junior Cristian Caso and senior Kosta Papanikolas to create shots for themselves and others. Outside backs Max Rocco and Aiden Pacheco marked up Ruggiero and Caso, while center backs Brent Romano and Tyler Borenstein shut down the middle and fed back into the attack. Borenstein was particularly instrumental to the Howell effort on Wednesday with Romano heading to the bench for a prolonged period following a collision.

"Earlier in the season, we would just absorb pressure," Yuro said. "We stated to tell our guys 'You've got to win that ball coming forward. You can't just keep sitting on pressure, because something is going to happen.' And they were. They were stepping up, winning the fifty-fifty balls as they were coming in and they just grinded it out."

Maser also sat out for a stretch that included the final 14 minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second due to an abdominal injury. Before Maser --  the team's central midfielder -- returned after treatment, senior Marcello Romano, junior John Fiorillo, junior Kam Brown and junior Quinn Mills picked up the slack during Maser's absence.

"We're able to adapt pretty quickly," Turturro said. "I think our guys are flexible and can play a lot of different spots, especially Quinn. Tyler Borenstein is picking up the center back spot this year and that's not where I would expect him to be and neither would he. Guys are able to step into roles and fit in however we need them and I like that about this team."

Howell senior Brent Romano (right) battles Toms River North senior Kosta Papanikolas for the ball. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Howell senior Brent Romano (right) battles Toms River North senior Kosta Papanikolas for the ball. (Photo: Tom Smith |

When it came the attack, however, Turturro was the catalyst and for most of the second half, Ocholla matched his teammates energy and effectiveness. It was fitting, then, that the two combined on the goal that proved to be the game-winner in the 75th minute.

"Everybody is tough down the middle and with Nick, they had two or three guys in there," Yuro said. "We want to get to the flanks. That has been our style all season long. There is usually more space out there and we've got good speed with Bryce and Cam. Just get out there, create and see what we can do."

On a free kick from 23 yards out on the right side, Turturro curled a left-footed shot that was headed to the far left corner of the goal. Ocholla crashed the net, screened Toms River North goalkeeper Mike Vivolo and flicked the ball with his head, directing it to the far side netting with 5:57 left.

"I had my dad and my two cousins right behind me (on the free kick) and they knew what was coming," Turturro said. "I believed in myself, I believed in Bryce and I believed in anybody that was going to get on the end of that."

The goal proved to be essential for Howell when Toms River North broke up the shutout just 33 seconds after Turturro's second goal. Senior Luke Montanile headed down a corner kick by junior James Homyak and knocked it in to slice the deficit back to one goal.

Toms River North played the last five minutes with 10 men after Turkan Curak picked up his second red card and could not generate an opportunity that could produce a game-tying score.

Howell goalkeeper Patrick Martin (green) contends with a host of players from both teams for a ball in the air.(Photo: Tom Smith |
Howell goalkeeper Patrick Martin (green) contends with a host of players from both teams for a ball in the air.(Photo: Tom Smith |

"It's all under control until it's not," Yuro said. "They started stretching the game out on us, but our defenders really held tight. We hadn't really been tested with that consistency. We have had a few counter-attacks that beat us, but they (Toms River North) were consistent. Their forwards were coming back and getting involved and I thought the defense played real well. Tyler and Brent in the middle were more active than they have ever been and they just kept their composure."

Howell is one year removed from losing to CBA, 2-1, in the SCT championship game and on Saturday in Neptune, the Rebels will have their chance at revenge against the defending champions. While CBA seeks to become just the second program in tournament history to win three consecutive titles, Howell will aim to claim its first SCT championship since winning its first in 2007.

"I said to the guys after the game, 'This doesn't just happen by chance,'" Turturro said. "We worked really, really hard for this. It doesn't happen for just anybody. We deserve every bit of this and we're going to be back here on Saturday."

Box Score

Howell 2, Toms River North 1

TR North (12-3)011
Howell (10-1-2)112

Goals (Assists): (H) Nick Turturro (Tye Maser) 23'; (N) Bryce Ocholla (Nick Turturro) 75'; (TRN) Luke Montanile (James Homyak) 75'
Shots: Howell, 8-4
Saves: (TRN) Mike Vivolo 3; (H) Patrick Martin 2

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