Living the Dream: Chloe Gellici’s OT winner gives Brick Memorial first sectional title since 2008
MIDDLETOWN -- For the previous 365 days, there were not many moments where Brick Memorial's girls soccer team could stop thinking about the way its 2022 season ended.
The wait was finally over on Monday afternoon, and as fate would have it, the Mustangs found themselves in the exact same position, battling tooth and nail with Middletown South in extra time with a state sectional championship on the line.
Last year, it was heartbreak. This year, heroics.
Senior forward Chloe Gellici buried a cross from junior forward Maggie Allen in the 92nd minute to deliver third-seeded Brick Memorial a dramatic 2-1 victory over top-seeded Middletown South in extra time that claimed the 2023 NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 3 sectional championship. Allen used her blazing speed to beat a defender down the right wing and sent a cross over two Eagles defenders that Gellici finished inside the left post, setting off an emotional celebration for the Mustangs' first sectional title since 2008 and seventh overall.
"I just swung my leg and saw the ball in the back of the net and knew the game was over," Gellici said. "There are honestly no words to describe this moment. We've been waiting a year and a day for this to come back. We're on the good side now."
"We thought they (Middletown South) were tired so we wanted to get our fastest girls out there," said Brick Memorial head coach Billy Caruso. "Maggie just goes, goes, goes, and everybody knows something is going to happen so get in the box. Chloe was in the perfect spot and boom, boom, boom! We are sectional champions!"
Almost a year ago to the day, Brick Memorial and Middletown South were tied 2-2 through regulation and the first 10 minutes of extra time before the Eagles scored a late goal to win the title and leave the Mustangs wondering how it all went wrong. Monday's game was nearly identical until Brick Memorial flipped the script to add to its illustrious girls soccer legacy.
"(We thought about it) every single day since last November 5th," said senior Lexi Caruso.
"We all love each other and we've been best friends for years, so we made sure we weren't going to let our senior season end the way it did last year," said senior Mia Caruso.
"I'm not going to lie, there were probably 10 days the entire season we didn't talk about last year," Billy Caruso said. "It broke our hearts. This time, we were going to control our own destiny. We weren't going to get our hearts broken. And they were a very, very good team. It was our toughest game of the year, obviously."
Brick Memorial (15-4-1) will travel south to face Shawnee (18-2-1) in the Group 3 semifinals at 11 a.m. on Thursday. Shawnee stunned Ocean City, 3-2 in extra time, to win the South Jersey Group 3 title.
Brick Memorial struck first in the 36th minute when Gellici headed in a corner kick from senior midfielder Gabby Hernandez and took a 1-0 lead into halftime. Middletown South netted the equalizer in the 52nd minute when senior midfielder Camryn Szotak set up junior forward Amanda MacGregor for a tap-in goal.
There were close calls the rest of the way with Brick Memorial junior goalie Giselle Lizardi coming out to slide and stop a pair of chances and later leaping to snatch a pair of corner kicks out of the air to thwart Middletown South set pieces. Brick Memorial nearly won the game at the end of regulation but Eagles goalie Allie Greco dove to her right to stop a shot by Allen with 30 seconds left.
While Gellici and Allen were the heroines for combining on the title-clinching goal, Monday night's triumph was the ultimate team victory for Brick Memorial. Gellici and Allen pressured the Middletown South back line for most of the game. the Caruso twins had a hand in creating several scoring opportunities, Hernandez lofted picture-perfect corner kicks, and junior midfielder Brooke D'Almeida was aggressive and had stretches where she dominated the ball. Defensively, senior back Ashlee Schlagenhaft and junior back Jordan McCullough were sturdy and decisive while sophomore outside backs Makayla Siciliano and Reese Keane played beyond their years. In goal, Lizardi came up with multiple clutch saves to keep the game tied.
"I'm so proud of these girls," Gellici said. "We had our ups and downs during the season but when state time comes we show up, and we showed up today."
"This is a special, special senior class," Billy Caruso said of the quintet of Gellici, Hernandez, Schlagenhaft, and his twin daughters, Lexi and Mia. "They love each other and they love this team. They've been on our sidelines for years, and with my girls since they were in strollers. They're great kids and they really led us. That's how you win in the state tournament, with your seniors leading the way."
Keane in particular had a noteworthy performance matched up for most of the game with Middletown South star sophomore Bea Tinoco, who entered as the Eagles' leading scorer with 18 goals and four assists. Tinoco made some things happen with her speed and strength, but Brick Memorial largely denied her the time and space to work her magic.
"Reese had her the majority of the game and that was sophomore on sophomore and she did a hell of a job," Caruso said. "I thought the backs played phenomenal. Ashlee and Jordan led and won balls in the air. One of the keys to the season was that our sophomore outside backs, Makayla Siciliano and Reese Keane, had to grow up fast. Tonight, they helped us win a sectional title."
After a back and forth first 15 minutes, Brick Memorial began to control possession and steadily tilted the field toward Middletown South's goal over the final 20 minutes of the first half. The Mustangs earned a corner kick in the 36th minute and Hernandez arced a ball that Gellici was able to run onto for a header that bounced inside the right post for a 1-0 Brick Memorial lead.
"I saw the ball in the air and no one was around me so I went as hard as I could to get the ball toward the net," Gellici said.
Middletown South (15-4-1) was able to regroup at halftime and came out strong in the early stages of the second half. The Eagles drew even in the 52nd minute when Szotak gained possession 22 yards out, beat her defender toward the box, and passed to MacGregor, who hit a left-footed shot to just beat a challenge from Siciliano.
Middletown South rode that wave of momentum for the next five minutes and continued to put pressure on the Mustangs' defense. Brick Memorial was able to weather the storm and compose itself, and before long the 'Stangs were back pushing the pace over the next 28 tense minutes.
"During the season at times we did fall back a little bit (after allowing a goal) but after last year we just knew what could happen and we did not want it to end right here," Gellici said.
"We worked way too hard all preseason and the whole season and we weren't going to let it end like it did last year," Mia Caruso said."
Both Brick Memorial and Middletown South played with heart and toughness and delivered a spectacle fitting of a sectional championship game. There wasn't much left in the tank for either side once regulation concluded, but the Mustangs dug deep to find just enough to get back to the top for the first time in 15 years.
"My girls have heart and they have so much passion," Caruso said. "We weren't going to get outworked this game. I'm in awe of how hard these girls worked."
As the celebration unfolded, Caruso sprinted onto the field like a little kid bolting down the stairs on Christmas morning. As the Mustangs head coach since 1995, he has guided the program to all but two of its 25 championships, including all seven sectional titles and the program's four overall group championships. He has seen and done it all as Brick Memorial's head coach, but this one was much different. This one he got to share with his twin daughters, a dream 17 years in the making.
"Right now, this is the greatest day of my life," Caruso said. "I promised two little girls that one day we would do this and that's all I thought about. I did a hell of a job separating dad and coach for three years and 9/10ths of a season but the last three games I've been an emotional wreck because I've felt so much pressure to do it for my daughters, to do it for our senior class."
"It's so special," Lexi said. "He's wanted this since we were little and it's all we've ever talked about. Before we were even in middle school he said you're going to put on a Mustang jersey one day and we're going to do what we just did."
Their ride isn't over. Not yet. The Mustangs' latest sectional title adds another piece of hardware to the trophy case in the hall outside the gymnasium and extends an already-special season for at least another three days. If the Mustangs can get through Shawnee on Thursday they'll battle either Chatham or Northern Highlands for the overall Group 3 title on Sunday at Franklin High School.
"It's everyone's dream to win a sectional title," Gellici said. "But we still have more games to play."