Boys Soccer – Undefeated Clash: Group II Championship Preview
NJSIAA Group II Championship
Saturday, Nov. 17, 3 p.m.
At Kean University
Holmdel (21-0-1) vs. Glen Rock (23-0-1)
Holmdel at a Glance
Group Championships: 2 (2010, 2017)
Group Championship Appearances: 5 (2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017)
Road to the Final: Defeated Hillside 8-0, Robbinsville 8-1, Voorhees 7-0, Shore 4-0, Delran 2-1
Key Players: Anthony Arena (17 goals, 12 assists), Joe Arena (8 goals, 6 assists), Jack Russo (6 goals, 7 assists), Jack Giamanco (22 goals, 10 assists), Ryan Ferguson (11 goals, 6 assists), Mark Walier (2 goals, 3 assists), Mark McStay (4 goals, 9 assists), Torre Avitabile (1 goal, 2 assists)
A year ago, it would have been hard to envision the 2018 Holmdel boys soccer team outdoing the 2017 version that went 22-1-1, won both the Shore Conference Tournament and the Group II titles and did so while outscoring its opponents by a combined 122-14 (an average per-game score of 5.1-to-0.6). And yet, as the Group II championship at Kean University on Saturday approaches, the Hornets are one win away from finishing off a particular pursuit that its 2017 predecessor could not: finish unbeaten and No. 1 in the state.
In order to do so, the Hornets will have to overcome, perhaps, its toughest challenge of the past two years – a Glen Rock side that is also looking to finish off an unbeaten season and make a claim at the No. 1 spot in N.J. to end the season. A clash of unbeatens would figure to be reserved for Non-Public A or perhaps Groups III or IV, but it is Group II that will be home to the highest-profile match on championship Saturday at Kean. Holmdel is currently ranked No. 1 by NJ.com while Glen Rock comes in at No. 5 – within reasonable striking distance of the No. 1 spot should the Panthers knock off the defending Group II champion on Saturday. To put it more succinctly, it is not a stretch to bill this game as a battle for the No. 1 spot in the N.J. (even if Group IV favorite Washington Township might have something to say about it).
On dominance, this year’s Holmdel team is not quite what last year’s was over the course of the season. For one thing, the Hornets not only did not win the Shore Conference Tournament championship by a 7-1 margin in the final. In fact, they did not even reach the final. Ocean – the team Holmdel routed in the 2017 championship game – knocked out the Hornets on penalties in the SCT semifinals to end Holmdel’s bid for a second straight title.
Holmdel has once again dominated opponents on goal differential by an 83-10 margin and while that total pales in comparison to last year’s 122-goal outburst, there is plenty to like from the Hornets’ perspective. Holmdel is on pace to allow fewer goals this season and during the NJSIAA Tournament, Holmdel has outscored opponents a whopping 29-2 compared to 26-3 heading into last year’s final and 30-4 after its 4-1, championship-clinching win over Dover.
One of the reasons Holmdel has scored fewer goals this season is an injury that kept top scoring threat Anthony Arena out for six games. With Arena in the lineup, Holmdel is averaging 4.2 goals per game as opposed to 2.67 without him, so the Hornets have been close to their 2017 when Arena has been healthy.
Junior Jack Giamanco has emerged as a top offensive threat, both alongside Arena and in his absence. Senior Joe Arena has been a rock in the center of the field while Mark McStay, Eric Hinds and Ryan Ferguson have all risen to the occasion as first-year starters with Arena in the midfield. Senior Henry Kiechlen has also made an impact since becoming eligible in early October following his transfer from CBA.
The back line of Jack Russo, Torre Avitabile, Mark Walier and Peter Vassilakos has been even more effective than last year’s dominant group. Russo, in particular, has been a standout both defending and scoring, which is an element the Hornets also had last year with current Monmouth University freshman Mikey Neff. Goalkeeper Jack Murray has come up with saves when needed, included a big one in the 71st minute of Tuesday’s win over Delran.
After winning its sectional by outscoring its opponents 27-1 over four games, Holmdel had to ramp up the intensity for a 2-1 win over Delran on Tuesday. Getting past the Bears after not facing a real challenge in the first four rounds might have been Holmdel’s toughest challenge and the Hornets got past it with an impressive showing.
Glen Rock at a Glance
Group Championships: None
Group Championship Appearances: 2 (1968, 1991)
Road to the Final: Defeated Manchester Reg. 3-0, Lenape Valley 3-0, Lakeland 8-1, Ramsey 4-1, Hackettstown 6-0
Key Players: Ben Zakowski (27 goals, 8 assists), Nick Rogers (22 goals, 8 assists), Connor Daly (4 goals, 15 assists), Mark Buckel (5 goals, 7 assists), John Corry (6 goals, 4 assists), Ryan McCarthy (5 goals, 5 assists), Josh Kim (3 goals, 7 assists)
As Holmdel has learned over the past two seasons, it’s a lot easier to get to the No. 1 position in any set of rankings when you start the year on the radar. As high as the expectations might have been within the Glen Rock program, the Panthers were not considered to be a team that could make a run at an unbeaten season and have had to prove themselves with each game.
To this point, Glen Rock has passed every test with flying colors, with the exception of a 1-1 draw vs. Rutherford, and has looked progressively more impressive as the tournament has advanced. Its dominance has reached Holmdel-like levels, including a 24-2 goal differential during the state tournament. What makes Glen Rock’s run even more impressive is its most convincing wins have come in its last three games, including a 6-0 rout of Hackettstown on the north end of the Group II semifinal.
At the center of Glen Rock’s success is its one-two goal-scoring punch of Ben Zakowski and Nick Rogers. The two seniors have combined for 49 goals this year and while that comes up well short of the 61 goals that Anthony Arena and Justin McStay combined for with Holmdel last year, it is the kind of scoring duo that can force defenses into difficult circumstances.
If there is a concern for Glen Rock, it is that the Panthers have not faced an opponent on the level of Holmdel all year long while Holmdel has faced the likes of CBA, Ocean and Delran, not to mention sectional finalists Colts Neck, Pinelands and Manasquan. A win over Don Bosco suggests Glen Rock can rise to the occasion, but this will be the most challenging occasion to which Glen Rock will have to rise.
Holmdel has not allowed three goals in a game this season and has allowed two just once, which was the penalty-kick loss to Ocean. That game felt like the perfect storm bearing down on Holmdel and it still took penalty kicks to beat the Hornets. With its dynamic duo of Zakowski and Rogers, Glen Rock could very well have what it takes to put two goals on the board against this airtight Holmdel defense, but that brings up a second problem: Holmdel has scored at least two goals in all 22 of its games.
To Glen Rock’s credit, the Panthers have only allowed two goals once and it came in a 4-2 win over Garfield. The Panthers were held to one goal twice – the draw vs. Rutherford and a 1-0 win over 17-win Paramus in its next game. Slowing down the top scorers will be essential for both sides, but both Holmdel and Glen Rock have proven over the last several weeks that its goals can come from other sources beyond those top scorers. Of the two teams, Holmdel has shown it can defend balanced formations and also find the opponents’ weakness on defense. It just comes down to finishing and with this Holmdel team, the goals tend to come in bunches.
Maybe this is a homer pick, because Glen Rock looks like a real threat, but Holmdel appears to have the edge in what will be a surprisingly high-scoring, unsurprisingly fun game.
The Pick: Holmdel, 4-2.