By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — Egg Harbor Township boys soccer coach Pete Lambert had the right game plan. Going against the wind, he wanted the Eagles to get to halftime in a scoreless tie and have the wind at the Eagles’ backs in the second half. Mission accomplished.
But the way Mainland Regional has been playing this year, it doesn’t matter how good your game plan is, the Mustangs are going to find a way to win, somehow, some way. Sometimes a team just gets on that kind of roll.
Going against the wind in the second half, Mainland played the ball to feet, pushed passes through and hoped somebody could run onto one and make a play. That somebody was Joe Palmieri, a substitute forward, who beat hard-charging EHT goalie Hunter Barbieri to the spot in the 38th minute and drilled a shot into the lower right corner of the net. Mainland’s inspired defense made the lead hold, and the Mustangs held on for a 1-0 victory that clinched the first Cape-Atlantic League American Conference title in school history.
“EHT is a good team. I thought our guys came out in the second half and did what we said we wanted to do, which was play with heart. We started moving the ball to angles, and we created scoring opportunities by doing that. We played the ball to the ground and kept it better in the second half,” said Mainland coach John Napoli. “I thought we really stepped it up. I’m really proud of my boys. It’s the first time we’ve ever won a conference title, and that’s why they are so excited. We hope we are starting a legacy here. We have a young team, mostly juniors. We do have some great seniors and they have set the tone and been wonderful leaders who these guys are going to follow.”
“This means everything to us. We’ve worked for four months for this, all through the summer. It’s the first time in school history we’ve even been in a position to win the title, and it feels great,” said senior defender Josh Richards. “We knew this year would be the best chance we’ve had in a while. This is a great group of guys with a lot of older guys on the team. We have a lot of juniors who are very competitive, and they know what to do.”
“This felt so good. We haven’t done this, ever, and it’s just a different atmosphere. We just had to keep on their tough (offensive) guys, and we knew if we could contain them we could get the job done,” added junior defender Dan Adams. “This shows we are improving and getting better every year. This is what we’ve been waiting for since we were little kids. This is what we’ve wanted, and we want to keep it going.”
Both goalies — Barbieri for EHT and Matt Stellitano for Mainland — were up to the challenge of a big game. Barbieri made a great diving save on a bullet by Victor Figueroa in the first half and made another brilliant save on a shot by Conner Juckett in the second. Jack Sarkos took a shot from distance that Barbieri dove and deflected, but the ball hit the post and bounced out to a waiting Juckett. Juckett played the rebound back in, but Barbieri hustled back to his feet, dove to his right and made a tremendous save to keep Mainland (15-2-1, 12-1-1) from going up 2-0.
Egg Harbor Township (13-6-1, 11-2-1) had several late chances, but Stellitano and the Mustangs’ defense held the lead.
Mainland’s only goal came in the 48th minute from an unlikely source. Palmieri comes off the bench as a substitute, and wasn’t even an offensive player at the start of the season.
“He started out on defense this year. We made a few adjustments, moved him up, and he’s been showing a lot of composure up top,” Adams said. “We had to keep possession, that was the main thing. We had to shut down their main guys, and just play hard.”
Added Nick Nutile, “We were going for that hard-work goal. We knew going against the wind it probably wasn’t going to be a pretty goal, but we got that nice through ball and Joe put it in. He just did his job, did what he had to do.”
“We just had to stick to our game plan, which was mainly to keep the ball on the ground and not get it up into the wind, and just play our normal game of possession,” Richards said. “Their whole starting 11 if on my club team, so it’s a fun time playing against them, and especially beating them.”
Nutile has been part of the Mainland baseball program the past few years, so he is used to being on a successful team that competes for championships. He said it’s great to see the soccer team beginning to rise to that level.
“It’s awesome. I’ve been through it with baseball, but with this soccer team it’s a whole new energy. This year, we’ve been winning, and to bring home that CAL title is an awesome feeling. Going into this summer, we knew we had some talent. We’ve been working hard since then and we knew who we had to beat and what we had to do, and how to accomplish our goals,” he said. “This is a big step for us. We have to just keep backing it up and keep going further.”
“I’ve been waiting for these guys since they have been in fourth and fifth grade. I’ve known these boys for a long time, and it’s a talented group,” Napoli said. “We wanted to a shutout today. It’s nice playing a team like EHT and shutting them out. I tip my hat to (goalie) Matt Stellitano. What a leader back there. And they don’t make them any tougher than Danny Adams. He is so smart and athletically intuitive. He’s been fantastic.”
Richards said the coaching staff deserves plenty of credit, too.
“We have a great set of coaches and a great program going,” he said. “Hopefully, we can keep it going for the next couple of years, too.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN