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WALL TWP. - The Wall boys soccer program has performed some eye-opening feats in its long, illustrious history but never before has a team from Wall done what this year's Crimson Knights did during an abbreviated season.

Thanks to a penalty kick converted by senior Sean Southwell in the 76th minute, Wall - the top seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey East Group III South section - topped No. 11 Toms River East, 2-1, Saturday to complete a perfect 17-0 season. The 2020 Crimson Knights are the first team in program history to complete a season without a loss or tie on its record.

"We knew this was going to be a completely different season coming in with COVID and everything else," senior Jake Pepe said. "In 55 years of Wall soccer, there has never been an undefeated team, so for us to be the first one is a major accomplishment."

The boys soccer team is the second fall program at the school to finish the season undefeated, with the football team winning a memorable game against Donovan Catholic Friday night to complete a 7-0 season. On Sunday, the girls soccer team will attempt to complete a 17-0 season as well when it plays Rumson-Fair Haven for the Central Jersey East Group II title.

Photo by Matt Manley
Photo by Matt Manley

"In such a unique season with COVID, to do something this special is unbelievable," Wall coach Garry Linstra said. "Wall sports, in general, doing so well has made this whole thing special and it was great for us to be able to come through on behalf of the school."

Last year's Wall squad went an entire six-game postseason without allowing a goal in the run of play, but lost in the NJSIAA Group III championship game on penalty kicks. This year, Wall gave up a goal in each of their state tournament wins but came through with enough offense - including on penalty kicks - to keep the wins coming all the way to the season's final day.

"For over a year now, we have been waiting to get back to this game," Southwell said. "We knew we had unfinished business. We have been saying that all season, that we have unfinished business, and tonight we finished it."

After a defensive first half and a scoreless 14 minutes to open the second, Wall struck first behind an effort from its top goal-producer of the past two seasons. Senior Kyle Horowitz got the ball out wide and boomed it into the middle of the box. Senior Jake Pepe jockeyed for position, elevated over the defense and headed in the game's first goal in the 55th minute. The goal was Pepe's 10th of the season, matching junior Terence Byrnes for the team lead.

"Kyle put a great ball into the box," said Pepe, who also has 15 assists to go with his 10 goals. "All year, we have been stressing getting balls into the box because we know we can finish them. I had an opportunity, I got a head on it and it happened to go in, which was huge for us."

Toms River East, however, had an answer to keep its hopes of a Cinderella run to a championship alive. Senior defender Mike Conklin pushed up, received a pass from sophomore Kajus Matazinskas, ran a give-and-go with senior Alex Heid and ripped a shot off the left post and in for the equalizer in the 70th minute.

Conklin had a hand in all five of Toms River East's goals during the state tournament, with a goal and three assists heading into Saturday.

Southwell had to exit the game briefly due to a cramp and re-entered just in time. In the 76th, senior Phil Lyons drew a takedown inside the 18-yard box while chasing after a loose ball and Wall was awarded a penalty kick. The Crimson Knights turned to their penalty specialist, Southwell, and the senior drilled a shot to the upper right corner of the goal, beating the lunge of Toms River East senior goalkeeper Ryan Testa.

"As a kid, you dream about making the winning penalty kick to win the game," Southwell said. "Five minutes left, we knew we needed the goal. You just have to zone everything out, put the ball down and put the kick in your spot. The keeper knew where I was going, but it doesn't matter if you put it in the top corner."

"He is so good and we practice those so much, it doesn't matter if the keeper knows where it's going," Linstra said. "He is going to be cool, calm and collected and place it in there. For him to go back to the defense and secure it and get that game winner is awesome because he is such a great kid."

Wall's airtight defense, which allowed 10 goals in 17 matches this season, did not give Toms River East a look at the goal the rest of the way, but did need junior goalkeeper Joe Gisoldi to deliver a huge save on a header midway through the second half to preserve the 1-0 Wall lead.

"We have been looking forward to getting Joe-Joe," Linstra said of his first-year starter in goal. "We knew he was coming up, we knew what we were getting once he got here. He came up huge throughout the season and tonight was even bigger. He is a big-time goalie for us and we can't wait to see what he does next year."

Toms River East's season ended with disappointment but it was preceded by a run that helps put the Raiders program back on the Shore Conference map after going eight seasons between sectional-final appearances. They rallied from a one-goal deficit to knock off Allentown in the first round, then knocked off Class B South front-runners Lacey and Pinelands in the next two rounds - Pinelands on penalty kicks.

The nature of the 2020 season that was condensed due to COVID-19 protocols meant that Wall could not test itself in the Shore Conference Tournament and only needed to win three games to win a sectional championship. Wall beat three Class A South teams - Toms River South, Brick and Toms River East - to win the title and none of the three finished better than 9-8.

Wall's biggest wins of the season were two 2-1 wins over Colts Neck in the final week of the regular season to clinch the top spot in the Class B North division.

Regardless of its schedule, Wall managed to do something no other Shore Conference team could but winning every single game. Christian Brothers Academy and Ranney were the only other teams to win all but one game and Ranney (8-1) did it against a watered-down nine-game schedule while CBA (13-0-1) tied a winless Manalapan side in the week prior to the start of the state tournament.

"I have been doing this 19 years and there is always a hiccup game," Linstra said. "You always tell the kids one game at a time and this was really one game at a time because you don't know when that call is going to come telling you you're shut down. So it was one game at a time, one half at a time and the boys showed a great ability to grind and find ways to win throughout the year."

"Wall is know as a great soccer school so it's great to have that one distinguished honor," Southwell said. "No other team here has been undefeated - the great teams of the 80's, 2004 and even last year when we made the state final. There has always been one or two slip-ups. This year, this team held through, we never slipped up and it was all heart."


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