By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Last year, Mainland Regional had a big lead on Washington Township in the second round of the Coaches Tournament but let it slip away and had to scramble to hold off the hard-charging Minutemen. The Mustangs weren’t going to let that happen again in this year’s quarterfinal round.
Mainland bolted to a big lead by halftime against visiting Bishop Eustace on Monday afternoon, but refused to let off the gas pedal and cruised to a 5-0 victory and into the semifinals.
“We have a lot of good players on this team and everybody has been stepping up. We’re definitely hitting our stride at the right time,” said senior Conner Juckett, who scored a hat trick. “We don’t even look at (an opponent’s) record, we just come in focused in every game. We want to win every game and look at every team the same, no matter whether they are 0-14 or 14-0, we’re looking to win every game. We’ve been playing together for about eight years. We had that travel team, MUSA (Mainland United Soccer Association), where we won a state championship. So, we have good chemistry from playing together for so long.”
Domenic Bongiovanni found the back of the net in the second minute to give Mainland a 1-0 lead. Scoring early has been the mantra all season long for the Mustangs, and hot starts have lead to 13 straight wins, including eight in a row via shutout.
“It gets the momentum going for us and gets us pumped up. (Chris Meade) has been my coach since Belhaven (Middle School) basketball. He even said it in that, ‘first five minutes.’ That’s been our motto now for four years. We’ve been doing that, and it works. Once you get a goal you continue to work hard throughout the game,” said senior Dan Adams. “We’ve been playing together since we were about 8, and it’s all clicking right now. All the work we put in during the summer, the sprints, we’re conditioned and it’s all working. We put a bunch into the net today.
“We’re out to show that we are one of the best teams and to prove from last year’s loss (in the Group 3 semifinals) that we are ready for the playoffs and ready to get into that part of the season,” Adams added. “We’re ready to prove ourselves. Everyone, up and down the bench, is giving 100 percent in practice. We’re just ready for every single game.”
“Early on, (a team) can get deflated with early goals. We talk about the first five minutes of each half. There were a couple of times this year where we’ve scored early and that changes the complexion of the game. So, getting an early one, I think they were deflated and at the same time it gave us energy to want more. I felt like we were hungry today, and that’s a good sign. At this time of the year, you have to be hungry because sometimes goals are hard to come by. I hope we didn’t waste them all today. (Bishop Eustace) is a quality team, but for whatever reason, we had their number today,” said Mainland coach Chris Meade. “We look to get ourselves ready for the playoffs, when you’re facing quality opponents. The next game is obviously going to be a quality opponent whether it’s Washington Township or Ocean City. Everything will get us ready for the playoffs. This is a nice bonus. This is a prestigious tournament. We feel good, and we’re going to be ready for the next game, and go from there.
“These guys are veterans and I’ve talked about these seniors before. There are 12 of them, and at times at practice I feel like the level isn’t where it should be, but when they come out they are ready to go. I shouldn’t have to worry about that, and I don’t. They are a veteran crew who I know wants it. They were not satisfied with what happened at the end of the year last year, so we just want to keep building game by game and getting better, and try to achieve some more of our goals.”
In the 16th minute, Keegan Ford launched a long throw-in into the box, and Adams used a nifty header to get the ball to Juckett, who spun and drilled a shot into the lower right for a 2-0 Mainland lead. With 7:41 left in the first half, Akeem Sterling was taken down inside the box, and Jack Sarkos calmly converted the penalty kick to push the lead to 3-0, but the Mustangs weren’t done yet. Moments later, Juckett cleaned up a loose ball after a couple of tremendous saves by Crusaders keeper Zach Young, and with less than 10 seconds left in the half, Juckett completed the hat trick by scoring off a great through ball by Ford. That pushed the lead to 5-0 and essentially ended any comeback hopes Bishop Eustace may have had.
“That’s what we talked about at halftime, we didn’t want to let up at all because last year that’s what happened in this game,” Juckett said. “We want to win everything this year. We want to go out as state champions, for sure. We definitely have the team that can go all the way this year, we just have to stay focused. We can’t get in our own heads. We just have to win.
“Conner is one of those players that you love to have. Sometimes it’s not going to look pretty. His shirt says it all. That’s just the way he plays. He gets after it and he’s not afraid of getting dirty, and every team needs that grit,” Meade said. “That’s contagious, and that’s what we look for in him. If he can bring that every game, it makes us more dangerous with the other options and weapons that we have.”
Meade said by no means are the Mustangs looking ahead to the Coaches Tournament semis later this week. They have a tough matchup against Egg Harbor Township scheduled for Tuesday.
“The coaching staff is pretty good about it, they are high school kids and the tendency is always there (to look ahead). The first thing I said was, ‘EHT at 3:45 p.m. tomorrow.’ That’s our next game and we can’t be (looking ahead),” Meade said. “Every game is a playoff game, because every game we have is going to mean something the rest of the way. And they know that. I don’t have to tell them that. I’ll remind them, but I don’t think it’s something I have to beat down their throats, the importance of being ready.
“That balanced attack is what can help us,” he added. “We have depth, and we have multiple guys who can score. It might not show up, necessarily, in the numbers if you searched (our stats), but I think we’re dangerous in a lot of different areas. If teams are going to zone in on one or two guys, I think we have other guys who can step up and score.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays