By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP — How do you turn a team that was 13-5 a year ago and lost in the sectional quarterfinals into a one-loss squad that wins the South Jersey Group 4 championship just a year later? Simple, just add 47 goals to the roster.
Seniors Drew Heil and Ajani Dwyer returned to the Minutemen this fall after spending last year with academy programs, and their impact has been evident. Heil has netted 28 goals and Dwyer 19, and the pair have combined for 25 assists in 21 games. Heil had a pair of assists — on two goals from Dwyer — as top-seeded Washington Township cruised past No. 3 Toms River North on Saturday, winning 3-0 to claim another sectional championship and the storied program’s first since 2018, when Township went 25-1 and took home a state championship.
Last season, without Heil and Dwyer, the Minutemen were ousted by this same Toms River North team in the sectional quarterfinals. And earlier in this tournament the Minutemen nearly saw their season come to an end after a scoreless tie against No. 8 Southern Regional, but Township was able to advance because of a 5-3 advantage in the penalty kick shootout.
“I wasn’t here last year so I didn’t think about that loss too much. I just came in here and all I had my sights set on was winning this game, that’s all I cared about. And we got the job done. I wasn’t worried about what happened last year or the game before, we just get our minds set for the next game and that’s all that mattered,” Heil said. “After that Southern game we were asked, ‘are we going to play like that again, or are we going to bring it?’ We brought it in the RV game and today we were asked, ‘are we going to play like we did in the Southern game or the RV game?’ As you can see, we played like we did in the RV game. I’m really proud of this group.”
“I think we just started playing better. We had a couple of additions, and when you add 40-plus goals to a team it makes things easier,” said Washington Township coach Shane Snyder. “But we just have to play collectively, as a unit. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of unselfishness. We survived a Southern team. I thought Southern was better than us when we played them and we got, in my mind, pretty lucky to beat Southern.”
That was in the quarterfinals, and in the semis Township raced past No. 5 Rancocas Valley, 6-0. Heil and Dwyer accounted for four goals and an assist in that game, and it was more of the same Saturday against Toms River North. The Minutemen fended off a barrage of Mariners offense through the first 15 minutes or so, then turned the tides in the 19 th minute by taking a 1-0 lead. Nick Guzak sent in a cross but North keeper Mike Vivilo made a tremendous save on a shot by Heil. But Dwyer was there to put the rebound in and give Township the lead for good.
Later in the first half — after Vivilo made another tremendous save on a penalty shot by Heil — Heil redeemed himself by gaining possession after Vivilo’s ensuing punt and pushing a ball through to Dwyer, who beat a pair of North defenders and deposited a shot into the lower left corner for a 2-0 Washington Township lead.
“Nj.com predicted that they would beat us, 2-1, so that lit a little fire in the locker room and gave us a quote to look at and be like, ‘we have to come out here and compete.’ And we did, until the final whistle. There might have been a bit of luck on the first goal, but we got us and that gave us a huge momentum boost. Obviously, I drew the penalty and that gave them a red card and they were playing with 10 men and that made it a little bit easier from there. But they are a great, competitive team and we appreciate playing them,” Dwyer said. “A game like this can be anybody’s game. If they had scored first, maybe it’s a different game, but our biggest job is to respond and put one in the net early so that we can set the tone for the rest of the game.”
Early in the second half, Dwyer was taken down inside the box again, resulting in another penalty kick, and this time Mark Simmons converted for a 3-0 lead.
“When you have a kid like Ajani, nobody can keep up with him. He’s a track runner — I mean, he’s a Penn State commit, come on! Having him up top, nobody can stop him, it’s as simple as that,” Heil said.
“I get to play with Drew and he’s excellent, and him, Brett (Egan) and Landon (Heil) — they are all in the midfield doing their thing and they make my job easier,” Dwyer said. “They play me the ball (up top) and I just have to do my job and score.”
Snyder said it must be brutal for other coaches to try to figure out ways to stop Dwyer — who just started running track as a sprinter last spring and already has a scholarship offer to Penn State in that sport.
“It has to be a tough thing for an opposing coach,” Snyder said. “Some game he’s on the ball more than others, but I’ve never had a kid who can do what he does. He’s a game-changer, and today he was on his game.”
This week the Minutemen will take on Central Jersey Group 4 champion Princeton in the group semifinals, and Township is just two wins away from taking home another state championship.
“It feels great. I was saying to coach Snyder last year that my goal is to bring home the main trophy, the state championship, and I feel like we’re on a good path for that. That’s what we’re trying to do,” Dwyer said.
Added Heil, “it’s amazing. I never realized what it would be like putting a team on the map like this. Everybody has been coming out and supporting us. It’s been amazing. I love it. I think this is well deserved. Since the preseason I could tell this group was special. There’s a lot of chemistry with these guys, even though we don’t play on the same club teams. We play so well together.”
“This is always fun. It never gets old,” coach Snyder said. “The excitement you see in the kids’ faces is why you do it. To see them and how excited they are, and to see all the hard work that goes into building this. We just have to keep playing well and maybe get a couple breaks. But we’re here, we’re one of just four teams left in the state.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Washington Township at Princeton, Wednesday in the Group 4 state semifinals, time TBD.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays