By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Abbey Fenton buried her head on the shoulders of her head coach, Kelly Halliday, after the Ocean City girls soccer team lost 6-1 to Allentown in the Group 3 semifinals on Nov. 14. The Red Raiders were one win away from a state championship game appearance, and Fenton felt as though she let her team down.
But there wasn’t much any keeper could have done against Allentown on that night. The Redbirds were simply the better team and had a very explosive offense led by Rutgers recruit Emma Pascarella, a junior, and Vanessa Rodriguez, a very talented sophomore. Fenton had nothing to be ashamed of or hang her head about. She’s a huge reason why the Red Raiders were even in that position to begin with. The pain of that loss will sting, for sure, but in time Fenton and her teammates will realize what a special season 2017 was — and how it may be just the beginning of something even bigger.
Two years ago, the Mainland Regional boys soccer team came into the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs as a No. 8 seed and were throttled, 5-1, by No. 9 Hammonton. That year the Mustangs — much like this year’s Ocean City girls team — had a bunch of underclassmen in the starting lineup. They got their first taste of playoff soccer, and it was a sour one. But that group continued to play together on club teams in the offseason and continued to get better. They were much more talented than a first-round playoff exit, and they were determined not to let that happen again.
The following year, when most of that group were juniors, Mainland came into the playoffs as a No. 3 seed. The Stangs shut out Deptford and Triton, then got past Central Regional in a penalty kick shootout before getting some revenge on Hammonton in the sectional final with a 2-1 victory. Mainland’s run eventually came to an end in the Group 3 semifinals with a 2-1 loss to Toms River South, but this fall the Stangs avenged that loss, earning a berth in the state championship game with an epic, nine-round shootout win over that same Toms River South team.
So, take heart, Ocean City fans. The Red Raiders are ahead of schedule.
The Red Raiders went 20-4 this season and won the sectional title in a shootout over a gritty Cherry Hill West team in a game in which Fenton came up with several big saves in the shootout to lead her team to its first title in 17 years.
“I thought this was a great experience, especially for our young players. I told them to look at the scoreboard. I told them we would be back next year and that what we need to take from this game is that we have to play at our highest level. We found out what it takes to win a South Jersey championship, now we have to find out what it takes to win a state championship,” Halliday said after the loss to Allentown in the Group 3 semis. “I thought the pressure was off with this game, but it’s an experience. It’s hard to play a night game against a really competitive team. It’s a hard game to win. But I don’t think this puts a damper on our season. I think we had a heck of a season and we had a fun time, and our girls did great. I think we’ll learn from this. I told them at halftime that at the end of the game, no matter what the score is, I want to be able to say we gave it our all. I said I wanted everyone to give love to our seniors and tell them that we’ll be back next year.”
“We definitely deserve this. We put in all the effort that we could (in overtime),” midfielder Carly Reighard said after that thrilling win over Cherry Hill West. “Last year, we didn’t do as well, but this year we’ve really pulled through and worked together. We’ve worked together as a team and built off each other.”
Added Fenton, “This is awesome. We were in the gym the other day looking up at the banners, and there’s only one year up there. We’ve been working since the summer to do this, and to finally be able to do it and bring that trophy back here is great. It feels good to have one. I was at the bottom of the pile, but just to be there in that moment, nothing else matters. As a team, we’ve been working for this, and at the end that’s what we wanted, a great celebration. We deserve this.”
Ocean City had a pretty good year in 2016, reaching the sectional semifinals with wins over Central Regional and Toms River South before being knocked out with a 1-0 loss to Seneca, the eventual sectional champion. What made it an even better season was that the Red Raiders made it that far with a midfielder playing goalie. Fenton was injured prior to the season, but Tanis McDonnell stepped in and played really well.
Heading into this season, coach Halliday figured she had all the pieces in place. Fenton was back healthy, meaning McDonnell could be moved back into the midfield, and 2016 leading scorer Tori Rolls was back and positioned to become one of the top scorers in South Jersey. Until a broken collarbone in the season’s first game ended her 2017 campaign.
But the emergence of a pair of freshman helped ease that loss, as Paige Panico and Faith Slimmer burst onto the scene. Both are high level club players, and Slimmer has already given a verbal commitment to Rutgers despite being just a freshman. She scored 11 goals in her first five varsity games, giving Red Raiders fans a glimpse of what was to come.
“Paige is a great player and can play anywhere I want her to. She’s fit, she’s tall, she’s physical. With Tori going down — and she was such a huge puzzle piece — I was excited for (Tori) to lead these freshmen,” Halliday said. “But Tori’s never missed a practice or a game and is such a big part of our team. Every time I looked at her on the bench it made me cringe because I would have loved to have seen her on the field.”
Ocean City got off to a good start this season, beating a very good Shawnee team in the season opener before blanking Lower Cape May 6-0. But in the third game of the season, upstart Oakcrest handed the Red Raiders a 3-1 loss. That was a wake-up call, as Ocean City proceeded to rip off 10 straight wins, including five straight shutouts. During that 10-game winning streak, only Lower Cape May and Williamstown were able to even score on the Red Raiders.
And as much fanfare as the offense got, the defense was just as impressive. In 24 games, Fenton and the defensive unit posted an astounding 15 shutouts, and only Oakcrest and Allentown were able to score more than two goals on the Red Raiders the entire season. Ocean City also showed maturity beyond the years of its players, as it went 7-2 on the road, which is not an easy task in the Cape-Atlantic League. They were able to beat teams such as Middle Township, Cedar Creek, West Deptford, Absegami and Egg Harbor Township — all state playoff qualifiers — away from Carey Stadium.
The Red Raiders also showed the ability to handle pressure, and that was a big reason why they were able to capture a South Jersey championship. They went 4-1 in the postseason, including pressure-packed wins over Lacey Township and Cherry Hill West.
“I was so proud of my team for dealing with that pressure. It was a very intense game (against Cherry Hill West) and there were a lot of fans. I have a young team, so I thought they handled it so well. And Abbey, I’ve trusted her since Day One. She seems like a pro back there, but in reality it’s her first varsity season. She was hurt last year, played some JV, but she walked in this year and was like, ‘this is my team. This is my net,’” Halliday said. “We only had one penalty kick during the season, so you don’t get much practice with it in a game situation. Every kicker was a good kicker in practice, and Abbey was having some good saves in practice, but you just don’t know. When it came down to it, I had some scared faces looking at me as I was trying to calm them down. I have a lot of freshmen and sophomores on my team. I just said it’s a mental game, it is what it is and let’s just do our best. I pumped up Abbey and I said, ‘just save one and we’ll have a chance.’”
Halliday said it didn’t take long for she and her coaching staff to realize the potential this year’s team had.
“The coaches and I looked at each other in August, maybe one or two practices in, and we said, ‘this is it.’ It’s always been our goal to get (to the sectional final). I knew we had some talent coming back from last year, but with some new sparks — we knew it in August. Then, we get to the first game and our leading scorer from last year goes down and we thought maybe it’s not our year. But we’ve overcome injuries, and in the middle of the season we lost a few games we probably shouldn’t have. So, we’ve overcome some things and I’m proud we made it to the finals and were able to take it home,” she said. “I have two seniors on the team and they have been wonderful. It’s because of them that this team has been so great. It’s a really good environment. I’ve had some really good teams in the past, but this team is special for a reason. In girls high school soccer, it is about talent, but it’s also about heart. They really want to win for each other. We talk about playing hard and playing smart, but the most important thing is playing together.”
Looking ahead, Ocean City should be one of the favorites to contend for a sectional title for the next three years, and possibly beyond.
“I’m super excited. There’s a spark and with the team being so young, they are just excited to win and they are a joy to coach. They are so willing to do whatever we ask. It’s been a really fun season and I’m looking forward to more seasons with them,” Halliday said. “Now, with that said, we can’t take anything for granted that we’ll be back in the sectional finals again next year. That’s definitely our goal, though, and I’d like to win a state championship with this team. Moving forward, I think the next three or four years could be a dynasty.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays