By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
TOMS RIVER — Mainland Regional boys soccer coach Chris Meade likened the Group 3 semifinals to a classic heavyweight boxing match. The Mustangs and Toms River South went at it for 100 minutes of scoreless soccer, then traded haymakers through nine harrowing rounds of a penalty kick shootout.
In the ninth round, after Jimmy Kryjer had given Mainland a 7-6 lead by converting his shot, Toms River South’s Clem Slavick stepped up to try to convert the equalizer and send the shootout into a 10th round. Mainland keeper Matt Stellitano initially guessed wrong and dove to his right, but was able to stop the shot with his feet, setting off a wild celebration in front of the net as Mainland players and fans poured onto the field.
“It felt like a heavyweight fight. It was back and forth, short possessions — sometimes they would get some longer possessions here and there, then we would get some long balls and it was back and forth with different styles. I think both teams had styles that worked for them and created chances, but nobody could capitalize. It was just a great, great game,” Meade said. “It couldn’t have been any more exciting. With the amount of pressure both teams put on each other, there are going to be mistakes here and there, but I’m glad it didn’t come down to a mistake that cost a team. It was teams going at it just as hard as they could, forcing turnovers, diving at balls, winning balls in the air — it was a heavyweight fight.”
The Indians and Mustangs were tied through five rounds of the shootout before Toms River South keeper Jalen Folsom made a save, giving South an opportunity to win it in the seventh round. But Stellitano came up with a huge save, diving to his right to stop a shot by Zach Stankovics. The shootout went two more rounds before Stellitano’s third save of the shootout ended the game and sent Mainland (19-2-3) into the state championship game for the first time in school history. The Mustangs — who lost to Toms River South last year in this round after winning their first South Jersey title — will travel to Kean University on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. to take on North Jersey champion Mendham for the overall Group 3 state title.
“The intensity was there from start to finish. We knew what we had to bring today, and it took every minute, all of our effort. We have some experience. Our first tournament of the year we had penalty kicks and we were able to come out on top, and this year we’ve been practicing throughout the year for these moments, and it paid off,” Kryjer said. “You’re belly is jiggling a little bit with all the butterflies, but it was awesome to have so many kids from the school come out and support us. It comes down to heart and who wants it more. We’ve put the work in since the summer, and it pays off in the end. All the teams we are facing now are going to be talented, this is a high level of soccer. It comes down to who wants it more.”
“It’s a shame it has to come down to that and there has to be a winner that way, but it’s amazing that we won. We’ve been practicing (PKs) and working hard, and coach Meade is making sure everybody on the team is putting in the extra 15 or 20 minutes after practice to work on PKs. It’s amazing to be able to see the fruits of that labor,” Stellitano said. “It’s an amazing feeling. But everybody has to remember it’s the whole team. We played a full 100 minutes before the shootout and everyone played their heart out. The stress was through the roof.”
Both teams had chances to win the game in regulation, but just couldn’t get a shot past the goal line. Mainland thought it had taken a 1-0 lead with 11 minutes to go in the first half when Akeem Sterling scored after a long punt from Stellitano, but the goal was waved off after an offsides call. Earlier in the half, Dan Adams sent a ball into the box that Conner Juckett was able to run onto, but Juckett didn’t have the angle and his shot rang off the right post.
In the second half, Joe Palmieri made the play of the night when he somehow cleared a sure goal after Stellitano had come out to challenge at shot near the 18.
“We held the shutout all game thanks to Joey,” Stellitano said. “Him making that goal-line save was fantastic. I owe him everything. It’s fantastic that we came out with the win and we’re going to have one more game. We have 12 seniors and we’ve been wanting to play as many games as possible before we have to graduate, and now we’re hoping to win as many games as possible.”
Meade said he liked his team’s chances once the game went to penalty kicks. The Mustangs have been practicing them all year for just such an occasion, and have one of the best keepers in the state.
“With the experience of these seniors, and you throw Jack (Sarkos) in the mix there on PKs, I’ll go down swinging with them, there’s no question,” Meade said. “I’d put Matt up against any goalkeeper. He has the nickname ‘Stone Wall’ for a reason. He’s one of a kind, such a leader, and is always willing to take PKs as well. He’s a confident guy, knows what his craft is, and does an amazing job with it.”
Meade was an assistant to John Napoli last season when the Mustangs made it this far before falling, 2-1, to the Indians. He knew this year’s team had the talent to take it one step further.
“After losing this game last year, as an assistant coach I sat back, and I like to take things in. I watched a senior (Aiden Nino) put his arm around a freshman (Ryan Pellegrino) and told him we’re going to be back here,” he said. “You don’t make any assumptions, but we were going to work our tails off to put ourselves in a position to be back here and take it further. It’s nice for this group of seniors and the guys who have worked so hard. These seniors put a work ethic in place that hopefully will continue throughout the years. They are destined to just keep going. It’s exciting for them, and I’m just so proud of their efforts.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays