By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
UNION — The few times when the Mainland Regional boys soccer team fell behind this year, head coach Chris Meade had confidence his high-powered offense could make things right again and score the tying goal. There was no reason not to have confidence that his Mustangs could do it once again on Sunday in the Group 3 state championship game at Kean University.
But Mendham was better than any other team Mainland had played this year, and the Minutemen were able to hold off the Mustangs’ furious rally in the final five minutes to secure a 2-1 victory, denying Mainland its first-ever state championship. It was the second title for Mendham, which also won it in 2015.
Calvin Ryan scored a pair of goals for Mendham, the No. 5 team in the state according to nj.com, before Dan Adams cut the lead in half with 11:54 remaining on an acrobatic header off a rebounded save of a Keegan Ford direct kick. But keeper Ryan Carkhuff and the Minutemen defense were up to the task the rest of the way, holding off a slew of challenges from the Mustangs in the final minutes.
“I just told them how proud I am of them, and blessed to be a part of this, frankly. They showed some guts, and that’s what I’m most proud of. We didn’t play our game for part of the first half, but once we recognized what they were trying to do, we settled in and started to pressure. We turned the ball over a little bit, and I think that cost us. It put too much pressure on our defense. We’ve been very successful all year, but when you’re outnumbered and putting pressure on your defense by turning the ball over, sometimes it hurts you, and they took advantage of that,” Meade said. “There were times when we didn’t take advantage. We had our opportunities, especially at the end. Throughout the game we had a couple of opportunities, we just didn’t find the back of the net. We’ve been very successful in finding the back of the net all year, so I was a little disappointed in not getting more than one goal, but I’m so proud of these guys. I didn’t feel like it was going to stay 2-0, the question was could we get (a second goal). There is so much faith I have in these guys because they have proven it over and over again. I think if you ask any of these guys, they truly believed that we were going to win this game.”
In the 23rd minute, Ryan took control of the ball just outside the 18 and beat two defenders before depositing a shot into the lower right corner of the net to put Mendham up, 1-0. He made it 2-0 early in the second half when he took control of a loose ball about 12 yards out and drilled a shot home. There wasn’t much Mainland keeper Matt Stellitano could have done on those two shots, but he played a very good game otherwise, finishing with six saves.
“We had a heck of a year, everybody, including JV and freshmen — everybody pushed through and everybody worked hard. We said our goal was to play 25 games, and we played 25 games. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the last one,” Stellitano said. “They played very hard. Congratulations to them. We kept with them, it’s just a shame somebody has to lose this game. I’ve known every one of (my teammates) since we were 6 or 7 years old. It’s a shame it has to end this way, but they all played their hearts out, every game — every time they stepped foot on a field in this uniform they knew it meant something. (A state title) was our goal. Unfortunately, we didn’t win it, but we can’t hang our heads about this season. We went farther than any Mainland team has ever gone.”
Mainland (19-3-3), No. 17 in the state, had several good chances in the second half, but Mendham (20-3) and Carkhuff were able to wiggle out of danger. Joe Palmieri ripped a direct kick from distance that Carkhuff got a hand on and deflected, and he thwarted several other Mustangs chances on corner kicks later in the second half.
“It’s hard right now. We didn’t like the way it ended, but we’ll look back on this 10 years from now and be happy with what we did. We had great chemistry. We were close with the seniors last year, but this year it really paid off. When I was younger, I never really knew what it meant when people said that senior experience, and all that stuff. But, through the course of four years we gained that experience and got accustomed to playing soccer with each other, and it paid off,” said Jimmy Kryjer, one of 10 seniors in the starting lineup, along with junior striker Jack Sarkos. “Since we’ve been little we’ve been playing together. We’re more than a team, we’re a family, and that is what made us so good. It’s been a great run. Obviously, we didn’t like the way it ended, but nobody else (at Mainland) has done what we’ve done. We have to keep our heads high because we had a heck of a season. This is a great group of guys.”
“This is a group that has been together since they were young. When you look at high school sports, you don’t see too many groups that stay together that long. Everybody is looking for something bigger and better sometimes,” said Meade, who is in his first year as head coach after serving as an assistant under John Napoli last fall. “So I’m proud of them for sticking together and building that chemistry, and obviously it’s been effective because we won a South Jersey Group 3 championship two years in a row. I wish today would have gone a little better, but we got ourselves to a state final.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays