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WALL TOWNSHIP -- Walking up to the ball with a state sectional title hanging in the balance, St. Rose's Diego Nieves had no doubt what was going to happen next.

In the fifth round of penalty kicks vs. Bishop Eustace and red-hot goalie Karl Wissman, Nieves buried a shot inside the left post to give the Purple Roses a 5-3 advantage to outlast the Crusaders and claim the 2022 NJSIAA Non-Public B South sectional title on Wednesday afternoon at Fletcher Fields.

It is the first sectional title for St. Rose since 2010.

"It's a lot of pressure but you need to take your mind off it and know once you score that goal how good it's going to feel," Nieves said. "And it feels great."

St. Rose had more possession and scoring chances throughout regulation and extra time but could not beat Wissman, who made two fantastic saves in the 76th minute to keep the game scoreless and finished with 10 total saves. But in penalties, Packy O'Hearn, James Vitale, Mike Conlon, Matt Cheney, and Nieves all converted their shots to give St. Rose the dramatic victory.

"The fact that we won in pens; I'm a big believer in that you create your own luck, and in the 80 minutes plus the two overtimes we created our own luck," said St. Rose head coach Simon Muckle. "You can see by the amount of chances we created that we were the better team today and we deserved that one. We earned that for the body of work we had during the year, for the three games we played to get here, and for the amount of work we've put in. I couldn't be happier for the lads."

In its first trip to the Non-Public B championship game since winning it all in 2010, St. Rose will take on three-time defending champion Gill St. Bernard at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Franklin High School.

Robert Badders
Robert Badders

First to shoot in penalties was St. Rose senior Packy O'Hearn, and he converted his opportunity with a left-footed kick low to the right post. O'Hearn had his share of chances during the prior 100 minutes, including a great look in extra time that missed wide. After controlling play for almost the entirety of regulation and extra time, going to penalties against a locked-in goalkeeper was far from the best-case scenario for St. Rose. The Roses' championship fate and the balance of the seniors' careers were about to be determined by penalty kicks.

"I was a little scared," O'Hearn said bluntly. "He had made a bunch of great saves and he's a great goalkeeper."

Star striker Liam Higgins tallied for Bishop Eustace to even the penalties tally at 1-1. James Vitale gave St. Rose a 2-1 edge by burning his shot into the upper-right corner of the net. Then it was Jackson Adams for Eustace making it 2-2. Shooting third for St. Rose was senior back Mike Conlon and he calmly sank his left-footed to make it 3-2. On the next shot, St. Rose keeper Jack Harmpn guessed correctly but the shot by Bishop Eustace's Matthew Connelly still found the back of the net to make it 3-3. Senior midfielder Matt Cheney made it 4-3 St. Rose when his shot just got past the outstretched arms of Wissman.

The fourth shooter for Bishop Eustace had his shot clang off the crossbar, opening the door for Nieves to promptly slam it shut. With a championship on the line, the team's leading scorer scored the program's biggest goal of the last decade to complete his triumphant return. Nieves had missed the last five games since suffering an ankle sprain against Long Branch in the first round of the Shore Conference Tournament on Oct. 11.

"I walked up to it and turned my body to make him think I was going to shoot right," Nieves said. "Then I shot it left and buried it."

As Nieves' shot hit the net, his teammates rushed the field and were quickly joined by the student section to celebrate a championship on their home turf.

"I went over to Vitale and just hugged him," Vitale said. I love these guys. It was amazing. It reminded me of the Wall game (a 1-0 St. Rose win on Sept. 10) except now we have a trophy. It felt like everyone from St. Rose came out to support us."

"That's what it's all about, that moment," Muckle said. "Now it's about how do you re-tool for Saturday. We have a chance to do something a St. Rose team hasn't done in a long time. They've earned this chance and I have no doubt they are going to put their best foot forward."




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