By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — Mainland Regional’s celebration after beating rival Ocean City 2-1 in the South Jersey Group 3 boys soccer championship on Friday afternoon was fairly quick and subdued, but it wasn’t because it was 25 degrees with about a 30 miles-per-hour wind. The Mustangs simply expected to win the sectional championship, as they’ve spent the entire season with their eyes on one prize — an overall state championship.
The second-seeded Mustangs (19-2-2) are just two wins away from achieving that goal after getting past a scrappy Red Raiders team that scored a late goal to cut the deficit in half before Mainland was able to keep the ball out of danger in the final three minutes.
“There’s nothing better than this, to win it senior year on our rivals’ turf — that’s a dream come true right there. Winning this game was awesome,” said Mainland midfielder Dom Bongiovanni. “It was an outstanding defensive effort from everyone on the field. Every position was working back and forward as hard as they could the entire game, and that’s what won us this game.”
The wind played havoc with both teams, as goalies Matt Stellitano of Mainland and Ocean City’s Garrett Vliet had to find creative ways to get the ball out of the defensive zone. Punts going against the wind would only go 20 or 30 yards. Mainland got a huge advantage in the first half when it scored going against the wind, as Bongiovanni made a run and Conner Juckett was there to tap in a rebound to give the Mustangs a 1-0 lead going into halftime. Each keeper was tested, and both came up with some big saves, but Mainland star Jack Sarkos was able to put away a shot after a turnover in the defensive zone with 13:29 left to give the Mustangs a 2-0 lead.
” Matt is one of the best goalies I’ve ever played with. He’s been that way for 10 years, he’ll stop anything,” said defender Dan Adams. “He handled it well, he got used to the wind and started sending balls out low.”
Top-seeded Ocean City (18-3-1) cut the lead to 2-1 when Matt Zelinski drove home a rebound after an initial save by Stellitano, but the Red Raiders couldn’t mount a serious threat in the final three minutes.
“We wanted to go that way in the first half because we wanted the win in the second half. We knew going against the wind that we had to stay low with the ball on every pass, keep possession and just keep it low and find guys in the middle. It was pretty surprising (to score against the wind) but that was a beautiful run by Dom Bongiovanni to set up Juckett, and Juckett just placed it perfectly,” Adams said. “It was good that it was late that they scored. But we knew they were going to be battling the whole time, just like we were. We knew they were a good team because we’ve played them in the past, and they’ve always had a good program. Kudos to them, they were really good.”
Mainland players said they are playing with a ton of confidence right now, and getting past an 18-win rival such as Ocean City certainly prepares the Mustangs for Toms River South on Tuesday night in the Group 3 semifinals. The winner will take on either Old Tappan or Mendham for the overall state title.
“We’re looking forward to the next part and finishing it out. We just want to finish this thing out. We won (South Jersey) last year, but we’re looking for more. This is good, but we’re not done yet,” Adams said.
“Facing our rival in the final, you couldn’t have asked for anything more than that. It’s a dream come true to win as a senior on this turf, for the South Jersey championship. The wind was definitely a factor today. We knew we had to hold them when they had the wind, and it was awesome to score a goal while we were going against the wind. That really helped us going into the second half, we had that confidence. We knew if we scored one going against the wind that we could get one when we had it (at our backs),” Bongiovanni said. “Our confidence is really boosted right now. As long as we do what we know we can do, we feel like we can beat any team. Our confidence is at the top right now.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays