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STAFFORD — Early in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV semifinal game, Southern found itself in a position it has suddenly become quite accustomed to.

The defending sectional champion Rams were trailing visiting Old Bridge by two goals with a spot in the title game on the line. Recent come-from-behind wins over Christian Brothers Academy and Barnegat had them confident they could do it again, but this time was going to be different. This time they would have to rally without any contribution from 87-goal scorer Dylan Jinks.

Old Bridge made its intentions perfectly clear from the opening whistle: Jinks wasn’t going to touch the ball. The Knights had a defender glued to him at all times and another waiting to double-team him immediately if he did get the ball. The spark was going to have to come from somewhere else.

“Dylan’s been our go-to guy for three years, but other people had to make plays if we were going to win this game,” said head coach John Pampalone.

The Rams proved they are much more than a one-man offense, rallying for five fourth-quarter goals by four different players to defeat Old Bridge, 8-5, and return to the South Jersey Group IV final, which they will host on Saturday against Lenape.

Junior midfielder Chris Smith led a balanced offense with three goals, including the eventual game-winning goal off a great pass from Shawn McManus with 7:37 left in the fourth quarter. McManus, a junior midfielder, finished with two goals and two assists, and sophomore attackman Nick Simonelli added two goals and one assist to propel Southern to the sectional final.

Junior midfielder Chris Smith scored a game-high three goals, including the game-winning goal in the fourth quarter, to push Southern past Old Bridge and into the sectional final.

“That’s a big step for our program,” McManus said. “He’s a 100-point scorer, and for him to not score a point and everyone else step up was big. We had some sophomores and guys who don’t score a lot come up huge.”

Junior goalie Brendan Lefanto made 10 saves and senior FOGO Billy Dowd was a dominating 13-of-16 on draws to contribute to the Rams’ program-record 19th victory.

“We struggled early when they took away Dylan, but other people had to step up and come out of their comfort zone, and in the second half they really did,” Pampalone said.

“We needed our other offensive people to step up when we needed them,” said junior defenseman Mike Adragna. “If he’s locked off, he’s not our only option, and teams have to take note of them.”

Thomas Francy and Alex Palumbo each scored twice for Old Bridge (15-6), and Nick Marzullo made 14 saves in a performance Pampalone said was the best he’s seen all season.

Sean Olsen staked the Knights to a 1-0 lead 3:15 into the game when Tom Castiglia ran a clear from his own end and fed Olsen for a shot that beat Lefanto. Southern tied the score just over three minutes later when Simonelli, after taking a pass from senior attackman Brendan Mullen, dodged around a defender and scored form the crease. The Knights would take a 2-1 lead into the second quarter, however, when Palumbo scored unassisted with 26 seconds left in the opening frame.

Francy scored the only goal of the second quarter when Isaiah Trawick found him with a pass to the middle of the box, and he spun and scored at 3:24. Jinks was being taken out of the game, and Southern tried to work around it by setting him at the midfield line and essentially playing four-on-four. The extra space allowed them plenty of shot attempts, but Marzullo was standing on his head with outstanding save after outstanding save.

“Our only problem was we weren’t scoring on this goalie,” McManus said. “But once we started it all came together for us.”

Southern senior face-off specialist Billy Dowd went 13-for-16 on draws to help the Rams defeat Old Bridge, 8-5, in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV semifinals.

McManus scored the game’s most important goal when he pulled Southern (19-2) to within 3-2 when he took a pass form Simonelli and blasted a shot from the top of the box high over the stick of Marzullo. Shortly after, Mullen dodged a defender and dished to a wide-open Smith in front of the crease, who buried it to tie the score at three.

“We knew we couldn’t fall down three goals to this team,” Pampalone said. “Their goalie is outstanding, and with the way they held possession and their defensive style, we needed to score the first goal.”

“We were iso-ing Dylan up top and that gave us a lot of shooting opportunities,” McManus said. “Their goalie had a great first half, but we finally broke through in the second half and starting putting them home.”

Southern wasn’t out of the woods yet. A penalty to Mullen extended into the fourth quarter, and Old Bridge capitalized to take a 4-3 lead when Francy scored off a pass from Olsen while playing a man up at 11:12. Just 36 seconds later, Palumbo scored his second goal to reclaim the Knights’ two-goal advantage.

“When we fell behind by two after we tied it there was no sign of panic from these guys, and they came right back,” Pampalone said.

Southern’s rally to win was reminiscent of its come-from-behind win over CBA in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals, when the Rams scored the final six goals to win, 7-4. Smith started the rally against Old Bridge when he took a cross-box pass from McManus and ripped a high shot from the left side to make it 5-4. Less than two minutes later, Simonelli curled around the cage and took a slash to the helmet. With the flag down, Simonelli stayed with the play and skipped a low shot past Marzullo to tie the score at five.

The Rams took the lead for good with 7:37 left in the game off another great pass from McManus. Smith was parked at the crease with no one around him as the Rams worked their man-up offense, but several Old Bridge defenders' sticks clogged the passing lane. McManus was able to find an opening, and threaded a pass right onto the stick of Smith, who quickly fired it in to complete the comeback.

“I just saw him open and went for it,” McManus said. “It was high-risk, high-reward. The goalie missed it with his stick by a couple of inches and we capitalized on it.”

McManus gave Southern a two-goal cushion when he converted a nifty pass from Mullen at 5:02, and senior midfielder Brian Dunphey added an insurance goal with 1:34 left to seal the Rams’ third fourth-quarter rally in 12 days.

“Against CBA and Barnegat we had to come back, so it wasn’t anything new to us, and we stepped up,” McManus said.

“People forget we graduated 14 seniors off last year’s team and basically our whole defense,” Pampalone said. “People had to grow up in a hurry. But we also have enough leadership on this team that when it gets tight there’s not a lot of panic in these kids. They just go to work.”

Things only get more difficult from here. The Rams will have to defeat Lenape (14-7), which handed them an 8-6 loss in the first game of the season and defeated South Brunswick 15-2 in the other semifinal, in Saturday’s sectional final. To claim the Group IV crown they would have to contend with either Hunterdon Central, Westfield, or defending Tournament of Champions winner Ridge. To do so the Rams need to start strong and have Jinks scoring in bunches as he’s done all season. How the Rams addressed that situation Thursday should help.

“The biggest way to prevent that and help Dylan is for other people to score,” Pampalone said. “Because if they’re moving the ball and scoring it makes it very hard for teams to lock off Dylan.”

“We’re going to have to get back to our fast starts,” McManus said. “When we do that we really click. As long as we do that in the finals we’ll be good.”

Pampalone has seen his team wins games in a variety of different ways this season. Whether a blowout or a nail-biter, he knows what kind of kids he’s putting on the field.

“It’s a really good team,” he said. “I hope we have a few more games left is us.”


Box Score

1-Southern 8, 5-Old Bridge 5

Southern (19-2)   1 0 2 5 - 8

Old Bridge (15-6) 2 1 0 2 - 5

GOALS - OB: Thomas Francy 2, Alex Palumbo 2, Sean Olsen; S: Chris Smith 3, Shawn McManus 2, Nick Simonelli 2, Brian Dunphey.

ASSISTS - OB: Sean Olsen, Tom Castiglia, Isaiah Trawick; S: Shawn McManus 2, Brendan Mullen 2, Nick Simonelli.

SAVES - OB: Nick Marzullo 14; S: Brendan Lefanto 10.

SHOTS: Southern, 32-24.