NEPTUNE -- In the waning minutes of the championship game Saturday at Memorial Field in Neptune, the Middletown South girls soccer team was just one goal away from capturing its first ever Shore Conference Tournament title.

That might have been an overwhelming task for most other teams in the same situation, but the Eagles new exactly where to go for the championship-clinching score.

Junior Natalie Percello once again rose to the occasion by scoring the game-winner in the third straight round of the tournament, this time with 4:24 left on the clock to give No. 7 seed Middletown South a 2-1 win over No. 13 Howell for the program's first ever SCT championship.

In the 76th minute, sophomore Kaleigh Kapler crossed the ball into the box from the left side of the field. Percello won the ball from goalkeeper Madison Smith and two defenders, lined up the shot and knocked it in the back of the net.

Percello entered the postseason with two goals on the season and has four goals since the quarterfinals. She scored both goals against No. 2 Freehold in a 2-1 victory and scored the lone goal against No. 3 Central Regional in the semifinals.

“It has been a nerve-racking experience going in,” Percello said. “I just wanted to lock in and show what my abilities are and it is just an unreal feeling. We have been working for this since May and it is an amazing group of girls and being the first ones to win in Midd. South is unreal.”

The first 30 minutes were back and forth, with both teams playing conservative, not wanting to make the first mistake. Sophomore Veronica Nieves broke the tie in the 30th minute for Howell. Nieves received a pass from freshman Makenzie Memmolo just inside the 18 yard-line and put it just out of the reach of Middletown South goalkeeper Allie Greco.

Middletown South applied pressure right from the start in the second half and scored the equalizer in the 45th minute. Junior Grace Gironda took a free kick just inside the sideline near the corner flag and sent the ball into the box and it got knocked around by several players until it landed at Kapler’s feet. The sophomore quickly shot it in for the tying goal.

Midd;etown South Kaleigh Kapler scored the equalizer in the 45th minute. (Photo by Eric Braun)
Middletown South Kaleigh Kapler scored the equalizer in the 45th minute. (Photo by Eric Braun)

Howell had several chances to take the lead in the second part of the second half, but similar to the semifinals, Greco and the Eagles defense would not break. Moments before Middletown South scored the go ahead goal, Howell had the ball in the box and Greco was on the left side of the goal when Howell took the shot, but sophomore Maria DeGregorio was waiting on the goal-line to clear the ball away.

Maria DeGregorio clearing the ball up field. (Photo by Eric Braun)
Maria DeGregorio clearing the ball up field. (Photo by Eric Braun)

“Sometimes it feels like deja vu,” Middletown South coach Barry said about DeGregorio. “Filomena (Maria’s sister) was such an asset back there, she was great in the air, and she was physically strong. To see Maria come in and do that exact same job in that same exact position is such a pleasure for me. I love when I have families go through the program.”

Middletown South was able to keep the ball on Howell’s side of the field in the closing minutes to secure their first Shore Conference Tournament Championship. Earlier in the day, crosstown rival Middletown North defeated St. John Vianney, 2-0, to win the Shore Conference Coaches Cup. 

Middletown South goalkeeper Allie Greco making a save on a ball . (Photo by Eric Braun)
Middletown South goalkeeper Allie Greco making a save . (Photo by Eric Braun)

“There are no words,” Barry said after the victory. “We are always aiming to achieve goals like this and you hope that it is possible and you start the season with high aspirations. It means everything to see it come to fruition because these girls worked so hard for it. Middletown has outstanding student athletes who deserve the best and both teams earned it today."

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