WEST LONG BRANCH - On the third Saturday of November last year, Julia Eichenbaum and her Shore Regional girls soccer teammates didn't have a soccer game to play, which is uncommon at arguably the state's premiere Group I girls soccer program.

Shore's 2018 season ended with a disappointing loss to Audubon in the Group I semifinals, ending a run of six straight appearances in the group final stage by the Blue Devils.

With a new appreciation for playing in the championship game and a wave of new starters, this year's Shore side took nothing for granted in Wednesday's rematch with Audubon and returned to championship form.

Eichenbaum scored three second-half goals, sophomores Barbara Grimm and Lauren Saponaro each scored early and seniors Meli Pekmezian and Sydney Sears also starred to lead the Blue Devils to a 6-0 rout of Audubon to send Shore to its seventh Group I championship in the last eight seasons.

Shore senior Julia Eichenbaum. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Shore senior Julia Eichenbaum. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"Last year was the most heart-breaking loss," Eichenbaum said. "We took that feeling that we felt last year and we were like, 'We want to make them (Audubon) feel what we felt. We want our championship back badly."

After missing out on the championship game last year, Shore will go for its fourth Group I title in five years when it takes on Mountain Lakes in Saturday's championship game at Kean University, scheduled for a 3 p.m. kickoff.

"I think losing last year changed a lot of our mindsets," Pekmezian said. "I just think we're going to be more appreciative of getting there and more appreciative of this team, especially and all the hard work we put in. We all love each other and we work well together. We're like sisters out here."

Shore's sophomores gave their team a lift on Wednesday, particularly in the early part of the game. Grimm opened the scoring in the sixth minute with an 18-yard, far-post strike off a pass from senior Sydney Sears. Just under 21 minutes later, Saponaro made it 2-0 by running onto a pass from Pekmezian and ripping a 12-yard shot to the far side of the goal.

"She has been the most improved player on this team," Eichenbaum said of Saponaro. "To be honest, to start off, no one really knew about her and now she is scoring goals in the state semis, and just about every state game."

"The way they practiced throughout the summer and into the preseason - they showed so much hard work and dedication to this team," Pekmezian said of her younger teammates. "They have never stopped working hard at practices and they give it all they've got."

Shore graduated two standout scorers from last year's team in all-time leading scorer Frankie McDonough and Hannah Birdsall, but has recovered from the heavy graduation losses thanks to a group of underclassmen that has emerged over the course of the season.

"It has definitely surprised us, but we knew the potential they had the moment they stepped out on the field in the preseason," Eichenbaum said of the sophomore class. "Last year, we were expected to be the Dream Team and this year has been very unexpected."

Shore sophomore Lauren Saponaro. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Shore sophomore Lauren Saponaro. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

With a 2-0 lead and a 13-1 shot advantage heading into the second half, Shore slammed its collective foot on the accelerator to pull away with the win, led by its seniors. Pekmezian made it 3-0 by heading a cross from Sears off the crossbar and down over the goal-line in the 48th minute.

Eichenbaum finished off the scoring with three unanswered goals, the first of which came off Sears's third assist. Eichenbaum took the pass, but a defender and slotted a shot to the far right side netting in the 51st.

In the 64th, sophomore Rori McDonough centered a pass for Eichenbaum, who took one touch and ripped a left-footed strike in from eight yards out.

Eichenbaum capped her hat trick in the 76th by beating a pair of defenders and scorching a left-footed shot to the far left side of the goal.

With three more goals on Wednesday, Eichenbaum now has 106 for her career, leaving her three shy of the 109 that Frankie McDonough graduated with following her senior season in 2019.

While Shore turned in another high-scoring state tournament performance, the Blue Devils defense continues to be a story during this postseason run. The Shore back four has only allowed one goal in four matches and limited Audubon to four shots while its attack manufactured 33.

"The defense has gotten 10 times better since the beginning of the season," Pekmezian said. "They are working well together, getting out of the back, communicating with each other. The defense has improved and I think the whole team has improved and we all feed off each other."

Saturday's season will come to an end against Mountain Lakes, which will mark the just the second time during this eight-year stretch that Shore will reach the final and play a team other than Glen Ridge. Shore lost to Kinnelon in the 2014 Group II final, then beat Glen Ridge in three straight Group I finals from 2015 to 2017. The Blue Devils also lost to Glen Ridge in 2012 and tied them in 2013 to share the title.

"It's so special to do it as seniors," Pekmezian said. "It's not just the seniors either. The whole team wants to win this for each other."


Box Score

Shore 6, Audubon 0

Audubon (15-5-4)000
Shore (16-5)246

Goals (Assists): (S) Barbara Grimm (Sydney Sears) 6', Lauren Saponaro (Meli Pekmezian) 26', Meli Pekmezian (Sydney Sears) 48', Julia Eichenbaum (Sydney Sears) 51', Julia Eichenbaum (Rori McDonough) 64', Julia Eichenbaum 76'
Shots: Shore, 33-4
Saves: (A) Aysiah Maldonado 15; (S) Moira Hegglin 4


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