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RED BANK - The players on the Holmdel girls soccer team knew they were an improved team with the talent to compete with the Shore Conference's best but Tuesday's game at Red Bank Catholic would put their theory to the test.

After 80 minutes with the defending Shore Conference Tournament champions and the top ranked team in the state from the Shore Conference, the Hornets more than passed their test. They aced it.

Senior Sofia Mancino buried an unstoppable 20-yard strike and junior Taylor Bielan finished off a counter-attack goal that proved to be the game-winner as Holmdel knocked off the Caseys, 2-1, to extend their season-opening winning streak to eight.

"We have had a rough past few years, but we knew we had the talent on the team - we just had to put it together," Mancino said. "As we started to play games, it started to come together more and more and coming into this game, we really felt like we were ready to play a game like this."

Coming off a fourth straight losing season in 2019, Holmdel has catapulted itself into the conversation as the top team in the Shore - along with RBC, Wall, Toms River North, Freehold Township and Middletown South - through eight games with a core that was mostly in place a season ago, but a year younger and with some players in different roles.

"I'm not surprised at what they have accomplished and I'm not surprised by the result because of how hard they have been working for the last three-and-a-half weeks," said first-year coach John Nacarlo, who coached the Holmdel boys team to three overall NJSIAA group championships during a 16-year tenure that ended after 2018. "I'm just really happy for them because I have seen the work they have put in as a group and how much they wanted to win these kind of games. That's a huge win for the program."

The most drastic change to the Holmdel lineup this season has been Mancino's move from the back line to attacking center midfield - a position-change that has resulted in the Penn State commit scoring 12 goals and assisting seven others in eight games after scoring four goals all of last season.

"I have never played up top before this year," Mancino said. "They used to throw me up top for five or ten minutes but other than that, I never got the opportunity. This year, I have finally gotten a chance to show I can play in the midfield and it's paying off. I love going forward and I love attacking so it was great having someone trust me to play in the middle and give me the opportunity to show I can do it."

Mancino's 12th goal of the season was likely her most significant and it came in the 26th minute on Tuesday. Senior Lindsay Guarnaccia slid the ball to toward the top of the 18-yard box, where Mancino received it with her back to the goal. From an angle on the right side of the field, Mancino turned and fired a shot that tucked into the far left corner of the goal.

"We knew that (RBC keeper Chloe Grignald) played high on her line so we wanted to hit early whenever we could," Mancino said. "Whenever I got space, I just wanted to take a shot and I was able to get it off."

The first Holmdel goal changed the tone of the game, which favored Red Bank Catholic for the prior 20 minutes. After Holmdel produced a dangerous shot in the first five minutes, the Caseys owned the possession and did not allow the Hornets another look until Mancino's strike.

After the goal, Holmdel settled in and began to generate shots and close the early gap between RBC and the Hornets in chances. Red Bank Catholic wound up with a 16-11 edge in total shots and 10-5 in shots on goal after starting with a 6-1 advantage in shots over the first 20 minutes.

"They (RBC) were doing a good job with possession," Nacarlo said. "We weren't doing a very good job of keeping our shape in the middle and that's why we struggled. Once we got that goal by Mancino, it just kind of relaxed us and we started to play better."

Holmdel's second goal started with a defensive effort from one of its top newcomers and Mancino's replacement at left outside fullback. Junior Adrianna Morales - who transferred to Holmdel from Bayonne for this season - marked Red Bank Catholic leading scorer Morgan Cupo for most of the game and in the 45th minute, she took the ball away from her and carried it up the field.

"She was a great addition for us defensively," Nacarlo said of Morales. "She has been great along with Caroline Rebele and Lindsay Cannon, they have done a great job holding us together in the back."

"She is insane," Mancino described her new teammate. "She wins every single tackle and every time someone takes it outside, she's there."

Morales slid a pass to junior Katie Vassilakos, who touched it to junior Alexandra Wojie on the left sideline. Wojie popped a pass over the top of the defense and Bielan ran it down before Red Bank Catholic junior goalkeeper Chloe Grignald could get there and chipped it over the keeper for Holmdel's second goal.

The Hornets kept the Caseys off the board almost the entire way, but the defending SCT champions went down fighting. After a foul outside the 18-yard box, sophomore Gianna Romeo blasted a low, 26-yard free kick that found the left corner of the goal in the 78th minute.

While RBC pulled within a goal, Holmdel did not allow a shot in the final two minutes and closed out the win.

Junior goalkeepers Hailey Sharpe and Katrina Walier split the win in goal, with Sharpe saving four shots during a scoreless first half and Walier stopping five in her 40 minutes.

The two teams are scheduled to do battle again on Thursday in Holmdel and with no Shore Conference Tournament in 2020, the two Class A Central teams won't see one another again until 2020.

"We know we have to play them again," Mancino said. "We haven't won anything yet. This feels good but we still have work to do."

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