TABERNACLE - The reception line of well wishers that gathered along the fence was seemingly endless.  Admirers that simply wanted to express their gratitude to Pinelands with an uplifting hug or handshake as a salute to a group whose grit and hustle was best symbolized by the mud caked to practically every thread stiched into their soccer kit.

The Wildcats went toe to toe with Seneca for 80 minutes. At times, they enjoyed the better of play and had a handful of menacing scoring chances to show for their labor. The only thing missing was one finding the back of the net.

A strike by Eric Pierre deep into the first half proved all the offense necessary for fourth-seeded Seneca to halt the mystical post-season odyssey of sixth-seeded Pinelands with a 1-0 decision on Thursday in the NJSIAA South Jersey, Group 3 final.

“This whole state tournament run has been predicated on their ability to dig deep, work hard and beat the odds,” said Pinelands coach Nino Scotto di Carlo, who piloted the Wildcats to their first sectional final appearance since 1989. “I had a lot of confidence that we were going to put one away. We had chances.”

The one chance Pinelands wasn’t given – at least by those outside its own community - was to be in a position to win a sectional crown. It countered with sharp, attractive tactical play and ideal defensive shape to craft an unforeseen march into the second week of November.

The ride wasn’t without a few twists and turns. The Wildcats were on the verge of elimination in the opening round, surviving a penalty-kick shootout to slip past Toms River South. They showed their mettle by rallying from a two-goal deficit to bounce two-time defending sectional champion and third-seeded Mainland, 3-2, in the quarterfinals before blitzing seventh-seeded Cherry Hill West, 5-0, in the semis.

However, an offense that exploded for eight goals in its previous two outings was silenced…but not without creating a fair share of noise.

Senior playmaker Kieran Sundermann used his magical touch and imagination to infuse Pinelands early, blistering a shot in the second minute just above the crossbar. In the 27th minute, he played a pass to senior forward Dominick DosSantos, whose delicate first touch spun him off a defender and opened a lane to fire a 16-yard tracer that Seneca keeper Jonah Mikulski parried over the top.

The galvnized backline of seniors Frank Aguilar and Luke Mathis and sophomore Carter Mathis formed a rigid Pinelands resistance that sparingly conceded ground to Seneca. Their poise on the ball and vision to move it upfield neutralized the Golden Eagles…until the 35th minute.

Midfielder John Meale skipped a low service from the right wing toward the front of the net where Pierre stamped a diagonal run by sliding onto the feed and redirecting at the door step to give Seneca (19-1-3) a 1-0 advantage.

Undaunted, Pinelands (11-5-1) hunted for an equalizer throughout the final 40 minutes. Sundermann rose above a defender to nod a header just wide of the near post off an Frank Aguilar restart two minutes into the second half and ran onto a through pass down the left wing from junior central midfielder Antony Aguilar, lacing a shot that scampered by the back post in the 50th.

The Wildcats built one final scoring prospect in the 77th but sophomore Johnny Hart’s right-footed, half volley from the top of the box sizzled over the bar.

“We had a better effort in the second half,” said di Carlo. “I thought we controlled the game comparatively speaking to the first. They worked extremely hard to get back into the game. We didn’t put away our opportunities, but we created them. I’m proud of the work ethic. They didn’t shy away from their opponent.”

Pinelands fashioned a 7-6 edge in shots and sophomore keeper Gavin Harris was pressed into only two saves.

“It’s been almost 30 years since we were in this position,” di Carlo noted. “Winning back to back B South championships, the furthest we’ve gone in the state tournament in 30 years…this is a team for the ages in terms of all-time great teams in Pinelands soccer. Eventually, they will be able to look back on this with pride themselves. They are a special bunch. It’s going to be tough to replace a lot of these guys.”

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