TOMS RIVER — The game of soccer can be cruel at times, and on Tuesday night it dealt Toms River South a heartbreaking defeat.

The Indians saw their bid to reach a third straight NJSIAA Group III final end on a save by Mainland keeper Matthew Stellitano in the ninth round of penalty kicks as the Mustangs won a thriller, 7-6 in penalty kicks, to take down Toms River South and reach the state championship.

After a scoreless regulation and two periods of overtimes, Toms River South and Mainland headed to a shootout to decide a spot in the Group III final. The first eight rounds mirrored each other as each team missed their second and seventh shots while scoring on the remainder. After Jimmy Kryjer’s goal in the ninth round gave Mainland the 7-6 PK advantage, Stellitano dove to his right and stretched his legs to stop the ball kicked to his left to clinch the victory and sent the Mustangs to the championship game.

“As a goalie, it’s (the shooter’s) responsibility to score and all the pressure is on them,” Stellitano said. “I’m just out there doing my thing. You never know, you just throw your body one way and hope to get lucky.”

It was a moment Mainland had waited an entire year for after losing to Toms River South, 2-1, in last season’s Group III semifinals.

“It’s fantastic,” Stellitano said. “We told ourselves we wanted to get back at least to this position and win one more game, and now our goal is to win that next game.”

Mainland will play Mendham for the Group III title.

For Toms River South it was a bitter end to a tremendous run that included a third straight Central Jersey Group III sectional title.

“To end it in PKs is always tough,” said Toms River South head coach Ed Leibe. “Credit to (Mainland). Their keeper played well, their backs played well. They kept us from scoring, and likewise on our side. You go the full 100 minutes and nine penalty kicks…”

“Personally I feel we played well enough to win, but as I told the guys this is a tough game. We got so close and two years in a row going to the finals, they really wanted to get back.”

Mainland spent much of the first 10-15 minutes in Toms River South’s end, but the Indians adjusted and steadily increased their pressure to the point where they sustained possession in the Mainland end. The Mustangs, meanwhile, continued to send long passes toward standout junior Jack Sarkos but the Indians, led by junior defender Ryan Laycock, kept him in check.

“Boy they come out firing in the first 15 minutes and we were on our heels,” Leibe said. “I was like ‘man if they keep this up the whole game they’re going to beat us badly’. But as soon as we figured it out and adjusted and found our feet, it might have been the best possession we’ve played all year.”

Mainland had a goal waved off via an offside call in the 29th minute, but the closest any team came to scoring was in the 60th minutes when Mainland defender Joe Palmieri made an unbelievable play to keep the game scoreless. Toms River South junior midfielder Clem Slavick blasted a shot that had Stellitano beat, but Palmieri backed up his keeper brilliantly to get a leg on the shot and deflect it over the net.

“He won the game for them,” Leibe said. “That was in the back of the net. Clem makes a great move and drills it low like you’re supposed to far past, beats the keeper and the kid comes over and flicks it over the top. I don’t know who that kid was but he won the game for them.”

Toms River South ends its season with a 17-6-2 record, a Central Jersey Group III sectional title and a trip to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals.

“They accomplished a ton this year, probably overachieved even,” Leibe said. “We knew we were going to have a good team and we always press to go as far as we can, but to make it a reality and go far in every tournament we were in, it’s just been a great season and I’m really proud of these kids.”


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