NEPTUNE - The Shore Conference Tournament Final is set after No. 7 Middletown South held on and defeated No. 3 Central Regional, 1-0, Thursday night at Memorial Field in the second game of the semifinal double-header.

Middletown South returns to the SCT final for the first time since 1998. The Eagles will face No. 13 Howell in a matchup of programs that have never won the Shore Conference Tournament championship. 

Both goalies, seniors Allie Greco (Middletown South) and Erika Kangas (Central Regional), brought their A-games Thursday in Neptune and were the two reasons there was only one goal scored in the game. In the first half, Kangas was challenged right from the start of the game, making several diving saves throughout the half.

In the second half, roles were reversed and Greco, who just returned from injury in the quarterfinal round on Saturday, was the one making diving saves, especially in the final 10 minutes to hold onto the shutout.

“When I first got injured, I thought it was the worst timing possible,” Greco said. “Now coming back, it feels amazing. I knew we had to stay calm and play conservative. I am so proud of my team and the way we just came together.”

Middletown South scored in the ninth minute of the game and was able to hold onto the lead the rest of the game. Junior Natalie Percello, who scored both goals in the quarterfinals against No. 2 Freehold Township, took a shot off a pass from senior Camryn Szotak that went into the far upper 90 for the Eagles. 

“I am so proud of her (Percello),” Middletown South coach Megan Barry said. “I think she has always had this potential and every game she is getting more and more confident. She is starting to shoot the ball and it is paying off because we continue to move on.”

Central Regional defender Nicole Kangas clearing the ball out. (Photo by Eric Braun)
Central Regional defender Nicole Kangas clearing the ball out. (Photo by Eric Braun)

As well as the goalkeepers played and as much as they rose to the occasion, both teams' defenses also showed the bend-but-don’t-break mentality. Several shots for both teams got deflected by the opposing defenses. In the first half, Central defenders Laura Woermer, Emma Christensen and Nicole Kangas were able to get in front of every shot taken by the Eagle attack. Kangas held Middletown South’s leading scorer Bea Tinoco scoreless in the game. 

Middletown sophomore defender Maria DeGregorio marking Shelby Parks. (Photo by Eric Braun)
Middletown sophomore defender Maria DeGregorio marking Shelby Parks. (Photo by Eric Braun)

On the defensive side for Middletown South, Jenn Schuster controlled the back line from the center and Izzy Dyas, Skylar Miller and Maria DeGregorio did a great job slowing Central Regional leading scorer Emma Harmon down and prevented her from getting any free shots on goal.

“Our defense in the last few weeks have kept things so organized,” Barry said. “When the pressure was high, they were constantly supporting each other and not letting each other down. If someone gets beat, someone is right there behind them.”

Central Regional’s best chance to tie the game came with 7:40 left in the game. Senior Samantha Versnel won the ball that the Eagles could not clear out and fired a shot inside the 18 yard-line, which Greco stopped with a diving save. Harmon sent the rebound over the crossbar. 

“Allie is someone because she has been in the net for so many years, there is such a level of comfortability,” Barry said. “When she is back there, everyone else feels a little bit more at peace and they play with confidence. Tonight she was so dialed in the whole time. She did not have one slip-up or one mistake.”

Middletown South will play division rival No. 13 Howell on Saturday at Summerfield Elementary School in Neptune at 6 p.m. Howell defeated Middletown South, 3-2, in overtime on Sept. 20 in Shore Conference Class A North divisional play.

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