By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Ocean City boys soccer coach Aaron Bogushefsky was caught a little off guard after his Red Raiders beat Oakcrest on Oct. 5. It may have been the first time in his coaching career that an opposing keeper — from a team that lost the game — came up and thanked the veteran coach.
Why was Markley, a senior goalie and co-captain of the Falcons, thanking Bogushefsky? Well, he just wanted to show his appreciation for a coach, and a team, that never took it easy on the Falcons and showed them what it’s like to be a dominant soccer program. Markley said he was so impressed with the way the Red Raiders carried themselves — they walked off the bus in two-by-two formation, were all business as soon as they stepped off the bus, and played good, tough, clean soccer.
“I’ve been lucky to play on the varsity team since my freshman year. My freshman year, I was playing in the field, and sophomore-through-senior year I’ve been in goal. (Ocean City) has always been pushing me to my limits, and they’ve shown me how I can become a better player and what things I can do better. I appreciate that their coach teaches his team so well. I was telling our guys before the game that we have to lay our hearts out on the field, and we did that today,” Markley said after that 2-1 loss. “The past couple of years, we’ve had some individuality and we weren’t enough of a team, so, coming into this year, Connor Owens and I told ourselves we’re going to make this a team and not about any one individual. Running tree lines, nobody ever finishes alone. Nobody is ever alone, we’re always together and always have each other’s back. We go to football games together, out to eat together — no matter what, we’re always together.”
There seems to be something special going on at the Oakcrest soccer field, and this fall may just mark the beginning of a big-time upward trend. No longer does going to Mays Landing mean a relatively easy win for some of the top teams in the Cape-Atlantic League. The Oakcrest boys team put up 11 wins this year and made the state playoffs, while the girls team set a school record with 15 wins while advancing all the way to the South Jersey Group 2 semifinals before being stopped by top-seeded Haddonfield.
“It’s been a good run. We did a few things. We decided in the summer that we were really going to take our training to the next level, so we went to Athlete’s Arbor in Linwood, and you could just see the speed increase on the field. They were a lot faster than they were the previous year. And the kids bought in, especially defensively. Through the first 12 games we only gave up five goals, and we were possessing, going around the outside. It was just really good soccer,” said boys head coach Joseph Seaman. “Both programs are really flying high because we’ve had so much success. The girls really did it quietly. They didn’t get much press. They kind of slid under the radar, but it’s been really nice in school the way the kids were up and hyped, the girls and boys always talking positively to each other. It was definitely a fun year.”
The girls squad had one of the best wins in years during the sectional quarterfinals, when junior goalie Brielle Smith made three saves in a penalty kick shootout to help lift the Falcons to a victory over a very tough Pt. Boro team.
“This says everything,” Smith said after that game when asked what the victory meant to her and the Falcons. “The fact that we’ve lost so many key players this season, the fact that Jana (White) got hurt the game before the playoffs. The fact that we had to battle every single minute of the game and literally fight until the very end.”
In years past, Oakcrest soccer teams may not have been able to fight through the loss of key players to injury. And the Falcons certainly weren’t thought of as title contenders in the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference, not with teams such as Ocean City, Absegami and Middle Township in that division. But for much of the year, both the boys and girls teams were right there in the mix, and the boys beat Ocean City — in Ocean City — for the first time in years. The Falcons also showed resolve, and having that ability is one of the stepping stones to building a solid program. The girls team lost one of its top players, Jana White, to a concussion in the final game of the regular season. And they expected not to have leading scorer Gabi Johnson, who was nursing a knee injury that affected her much of the season, for that game against Pt. Boro.
But Johnson emerged from the training room for the second half and asked coach Jason Hearn to put her in the game. She didn’t score in that second half, but her presence opened things up and allowed the Falcons to tie the game, 1-1, with less than 12 minutes remaining.
“She’s been nursing an injury all season and she’s been trying to push through it. Our hope was to rest her as much as possible. She made the call. She said, ‘coach, I’m going to do it for the team.’ So that does show some maturity on her part that even though she is in pain, she was willing to put that aside for the team. Even when she isn’t producing (goals), she’s definitely attracting a couple of defenders, which opens up possibilities,” Hearn said of Johnson. “That’s kind of what it’s been all season, everybody pushing themselves. That shows exactly what it has taken to get to this point, everybody pushing themselves, even a little too far sometimes. But, she made the call. She was banged up and sore, but said she had to do it for the team. Jana suffered an injury in our last regular-season game, and she was chomping at the bit to get out there as well. She wishes she could be out there, and that’s a testament to the team unity and understanding that it’s going to take them all (to win).”
Markley said that when the Falcons traveled to Ocean City early in the season, they were intent on opening up some eyes. They did just that, beating the Red Raiders, 2-1. They also scored a big win over Haddon Township later in the season.
“The whole team, we always look to play as a team because we were tired of being looked at as the team where people say, ‘we’re going to play Oakcrest, that’s going to be a win.’ We want to challenge teams and show them that Oakcrest won’t get stepped on. We’re a new team this year, and willing to challenge any team that stands in our way,” Markley said. “That win gave us huge confidence. We were the underdogs of the story, and we knew coming in that we had to push ourselves because we wanted to show who we are. We wanted people to know who the Falcons are, and we wanted (Ocean City) to remember us. We’re here and we’re ready to show ourselves.”
The two biggest keys to the sudden rise of the Falcons are having more club players on the roster, and having upperclassmen who are willing to take on a leadership role — and lead by example rather than just putting the captain’s band on their arm.
“All of our starters are club players at this point, and that’s new. It’s only been in the last two years where everybody has played club soccer. Before, we always just had to mix in athletes. But now just about everybody on the field is playing club. Especially the leaders, like Connor Owens, they’re all playing club,” Seaman said. “I think all the sports experience really helped Markley in his leadership ability. You take from baseball and apply that to soccer, and vice versa. Whatever the team needed at the time, Jack would step up. If they needed a kick in the butt, or if they needed to be uplifted, he would do that too.”
“From coach (Sean) Olson in baseball and coach Seaman in soccer, both of these coaches have taught me leadership abilities to lead my team and not leave anybody behind as an individual, to keep everybody together,” Markley said. “Whether it’s coach Olson yelling at me to get everybody into the dugout, or coach Seaman yelling to get everybody together to focus — we’re young (on the soccer team) and we’re going to be off topic at times, but when it comes down to practice or the games, we get serious and we work our butts off to get wins and challenge higher level teams so they know that Oakcrest is here to play. We want to bring that championship attitude to Oakcrest.”
The girls team has high level club players such as Johnson, White and Cayla Wyatt, among others, and got some great leadership from Haleigh Whitcraft — perhaps the most underrated sweeper in the league.
“Haleigh and Alexa Dimino — who is new to the defensive formation — they are both seniors and have stepped up tenfold this year. They have really embraced that leadership role,” Hearn said. “But it’s a quiet leadership. They just play. It’s ‘follow my example.’ And we have two freshmen on opposite sides of them, and they’ve taken that energy from Haleigh and Alexa. Haleigh is a captain, and she’s really captained that defense.”
“I think we are way better than last year. And next year we’ll be pretty good,” Johnson said. “Hannah (Curcio) is just a freshman and she’s a star already.”
Seaman said he sees a bright future for both programs.
“I’m really positive about the future. We were 8-8 last year, and I was starting three freshmen and three sophomores. Now, I’m starting five sophomores and two freshmen and we were 11-6-2,” he said. “Now the question is, can we take it to the next step and really compete against the top dogs? I think our best win, other than the Ocean City win on the road, was at Haddon Township. They were a defending Group 1 state champion, and we went there and beat them. That was right before the playoffs started. When you travel to the western part of the state, it’s always good soccer, and to be able to go over there and win in overtime, I think that was a good statement game.”
Markley, a senior, said he hopes he has been a part of laying the foundation for what may one day soon be a championship program, like Ocean City.
“I love playing Ocean City because they are a well-coached team and a very disciplined team. They walked off the bus in two straight lines and nobody was talking about anything except the game,” Markley said. “I wouldn’t want to play against any other keeper or any other team. I wish we could play them four times a year, just to get that feel that they have a really good squad and we want to play them more so that we can get better, and hopefully excel in South Jersey Group 2.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays