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TINTON FALLS -- The journey to the last stage of the 2021 high school soccer season has not gone as planned for the Ranney boys soccer team but it has nevertheless led the Panthers to exactly where they wanted to be.

Between losing a significant chunk of games to COVID-19 protocol in 2020 and missing out on a Shore Conference Class B Central championship this season, the 11 Ranney seniors did not get everything they wanted out of the back end of their high school careers, but on Monday against St. Rose in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B semifinals, they secured the ultimate goal: a chance to play for a state championship.

Senior Charles Anyichie scored the goal that made the difference and Ranney's senior-led defense closed out Class B Central rival St. Rose, 1-0, to send the Panthers to the sectional final round for the first time in program history.

"We have been playing all year and we have been waiting for this," Anyichie said. "We knew we were going to meet St. Rose in states, so we have been preparing for this all year.

Not only will Ranney be playing for its first sectional championship on Thursday, but it will be doing so on its home field against a team that only joined the NJSIAA as a member school this season. No. 7 seed Princeton Day -- a 3-2 winner over Bishop Eustace on Monday -- will travel to Ranney for the sectional final in hopes of winning a sectional championship in its first ever trip to the NJSIAA Tournament.

"Winning Class B Central and the Shore Conference Tournament of kind of afterthoughts for us," senior captain Tommy Boyan said. "States is always our number-one goal. We saw the seeds, we knew we had a nice road ahead of us and we knew we were going to meet St. Rose and we were excited about it.

"That's our rival so to come out on top is huge. Going forward now, we want to get a state championship. We're all excited."

"I know we're Ranney and we get overlooked sometimes for playing in the division we do and not having a lot of championship history," fifth-year Ranney coach Donny Gray said. "But I think this group was being overlooked a little bit considering how many good seniors we have,"

One goal was the difference in the second meeting between of the season between the Shore Conference Class B Central champions and it came from the most unique weapon on Ranney's team, or perhaps any team in the Shore Conference.

After battling in the midfield and making runs throughout the match, 6-foot-6 senior Charles Anyichie broke free on a counter-attack in the 53rd minute, running down a loss pass out of the back, touching it toward the left post and drilling the shot inside the near post.

The finish was a rewarding feeling for Anyichie, who injured his left shoulder earlier in the match.

"I have been working on finishing all year," Anyichie said. "Once I see the post, I hit it in and I have been doing that all year. I saw the keep come at me and I shot at it and it went in."

"He is a monster," Boyan said. "Ever since sophomore year when he came in, we have just been knocking balls up to him and he is just so fast, he has gotten to every single one of them."

After the icebreaker goal, Ranney clamped down on defense, sending senior starting forward Charlie McCann back to play on the back line with fellow experienced seniors Tommy Boyan and Jett Pacifico. Boyan is the leading scorer on the team and McCann is third behind Anyichie, but to ensure a win, the three senior leaders have been more than willing to do what it takes.

"I knew having Charles, if he could just get on a run and finish a goal, we could put Tommy, and Jett and Charlie all back there and try to lock up the game in the back," Gray said. "And that's where the culture has changed. I can put a Tommy Boyan, who is our leading scorer, in the back and he is like, 'Coach, let's go. Whatever we need.' For him and the rest of the guys to understand and embrace what we're doing, it's a big part of trying to win a state championship."

"Me and Jett had to lock it down in the back," Boyan said. "We knew we had a tough job today, but both of us rose to the occasion. After that goal, we dropped Chuck back with us and just played defensively for those last 20 minutes or so."

Goalkeeper Joe Celler also came up big with a pair of clutch saves, including one from point-blank rang in the 57th minute to preserve the lead. St. Rose had chances throughout the final 27 minutes, but its greatest threats game shortly after Ranney's goal, as the Panthers made it harder and harder for the Purple Roses to create as regulation crept closer to the final whistle.

Monday's game was a rematch of a showdown on Wednesday, Oct. 27 that decided the Class B Central championship. St. Rose defeated Ranney, 2-1, on a late goal by senior Luke Hamill to capture the outright division crown.

Ranney could not have won the outright title that day because of a division loss to Point Pleasant Beach. The Panthers, however, bounced back and beat Point Beach, 6-0, in the second meeting and showed again on Monday that they can bounce back and beat teams that previously beat them.

"I think the season has catered perfectly to us," Boyan said. "We have had to face a lot of adversity. We were down 2-0 to Manchester and won that game. We were down 3-0 to Lakewood and came out with a tie. Lost to Point Beach, came back and beat them. Lost to (Rumson-Fair Haven) in the Shore Conference but bounced back for states. The season has tested us and we've been responding all year."

Now, this group of 11 seniors led by the third-year core of Boylan, Pacifico, McCann and Anyichie will look to fulfill the vision they have had for themselves all along.

"We have been playing together for three years now," Boyan said. "We had a good group here when me, Jett and Charles transferred in and it the stars have just aligned for this run."

"I have been here for three years and for the past two years, we have not made it past this stage," Anyichie said. "We finally made it past this stage and it feels great."


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