By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMMONTON — In the span of four days leading up to Tuesday afternoon’s Cape-Atlantic League Tournament first-round game against Oakcrest, the Hammonton boys soccer team had lost three straight games and been outscored 8-2. This after the Blue Devils had gone 10 games and nearly a month without suffering a loss.
Well, in the newly expanded league tournament’s opener, No. 3 Hammonton got back on track in a big way, scoring four first-half goals and cruising to a 5-2 win over sixth-seeded Oakcrest. The tournament now features six teams, so on Thursday the Blue Devils will travel to Middle Township to take on the No. 2 Panthers. In the other first-round game, No. 5 St. Augustine Prep beat No. 4 Ocean City, 2-1, to advance to Thursday’s semifinal at top-seeded Egg Harbor Township. Last year, Hammonton lost 3-2 to EHT in the championship game.
“Just playing without getting three, four or five touches on the ball — understanding that one touch to the space where your teammate is to open things up, and you’ll get the ball back, instead of trying to take on two or three guys. That’s all,” Hammonton coach Steve Adirzone said of his squad’s approach. “We saw what they were trying to do. They are dangerous up top and they got two goals out of it because they put balls into space, they run on it and now it’s a one-vs.-one. We were trying to get on the ball early so they didn’t have time to get it over the top, and just trying to squeeze that gap between the center-mids and our back line.”
Oakcrest (8-2-3, 7-1-2 Cape-Atlantic League National) came in sporting one of the best one-two scoring tandems in the Cape-Atlantic League in Andrae Johnson and Jack O’Brien, who came in having combined for 20 goals in 13 games. But Hammonton’s ability to get on the board early — and often — had the Falcons playing catch-up all game long.
The Blue Devils (10-5-3, 8-2-2 CAL American) struck first in the fifth minute as J.T. Waddell scored off a direct just outside the box on the left. Then, in the 16th minute, Gavin West got in on the scoring when he ran onto a ball played through, beat a defender and deposited a shot into the lower left corner.
The backbreaker came in the 23rd minute when Carter Bailey drilled a goal on a direct kick from more than 40 yards out. That gave Hammonton a 3-0 lead.
“We’ve been waiting for that all year,” Adirzone said. “When he first hit it, I had a great angle, but I thought it was going over. I saw it hit the back of the net, it just dropped in perfectly. And good for him, he practices that all the time and I love to see he was able to get some success at it.”
“With the wind, I saw the keeper off his line a little bit and I thought, ‘why not?’ I’ve been practicing that and it seemed like a great time to try it,” Bailey explained. “We knew we had to keep pressing them. We wanted more goals coming off a really hard week, so today was a good day.”
Marco Schiano added another first-half goal as the lead reached 4-0 with 14:25 still remaining before halftime. Oakcrest got on the board when Johnson scored off a rebound with 12:26 to go before halftime, but the Falcons drew no closer. That was due in large part to the possession game the Blue Devils played off the back line and into the midfield.
“These guys, we have a lot of juniors and seniors who have been through this, so an early goal doesn’t affect them. Either way. They don’t take it as we won the game or lost the game, they’ve been through a lot of games,” Adirzone said. “A lot of these guys have been playing at the varsity level since at least their sophomore years, and in some cases their freshman years, so they’ve been through this before.”
“When we play as a team and move the ball around, we’re going to get a lot of chances to put the ball into the net and today really showed that,” Bailey said. “We’ve been wanting this one. We definitely want to get back to the finals, that’s something we’re really looking forward to.”
“Our back line is legit. When they all play together, talk and communicate, it’s tough getting anything by them. They position themselves so well,” West said of Hammonton’s defensive unit. “When we play as a team, move the ball and are unselfish, we’re tough to beat. We can beat any team when we play as a group and not individually.”
West said the Blue Devils needed this win, badly. They lost to EHT last Thursday, 2-1, got drilled 5-1 against Shawnee in the first round of the South Jersey Coaches Cup on Friday, then fell 1-0 to Glassboro on Monday.
“They are a solid team, but we came out fired up because we came off a bad week with three tough games. We were ready. We were hungry for a win,” West said. “To get back to that final we have to show up to practice tomorrow and get ready to play (on Thursday). We have a bunch of confidence. It’s been a tough couple of games the past week, but we can put this win behind us and move on to the next one. We’re ready.”
“We haven’t had a practice in a while. We’ve had a lot of games in the last week and a half, so we’ll get to practice tomorrow, get our thoughts together,” Adirzone added. “Middle beat us here to open the season, so now we get a chance to get a little revenge on Thursday.”
What’s next: No. 3 Hammonton at No. 2 Middle Township on Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament semifinals. Oakcrest travels to Pleasantville on Thursday at 3:45 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays