By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
MAYS LANDING — The Oakcrest boys soccer team would have had a built-in excuse for losing to Mainland Regional on Tuesday afternoon. The Falcons were coming off a win the previous day over district rival Cedar Creek, so a natural let down coupled with having to play 160 minutes of soccer in 24 hours would have been easy to lean on.
But this Oakcrest team isn’t out there to make excuses. These Falcons — shunned earlier this week when the pairings for the prestigious Coaches Cup were announced — want to earn a berth in the upcoming four-team Cape-Atlantic League Tournament and also have visions of winning a sectional championship.
Oakcrest went out and proved that playing back-to-back days was no big deal, as they got some revenge on Mainland — the only team to beat the Falcons so far this year. Nate Stuber scored in the 50th minute and star midfielder Jack O’Brien put the icing on the 2-0 win by converting a penalty kick with a minute to go.
“In the first half we were pretty quiet, there wasn’t a lot of energy on our part. At halftime, we talked about getting through adversity,” said Oakcrest captain Andrae Johnson, who assisted on Stuber’s goal. “(Mainland) is a good team but we felt like we were better than them, so we had to switch it up and communicate more, and rely on our teammates more. We had to stop playing solo soccer. We had to work as a team.”
The win was the fourth straight for Oakcrest (8-1-3, 7-1-2 Cape-Atlantic League National), which ran its unbeaten streak to five since its only loss, a 2-1 setback at Mainland on Sept. 23. The Falcons settled for ties in two of their first four games, but since then have gone 6-1-1. They also cooled off a hot Mainland (4-8-1, 4-5-1 CAL National) team, which lost six straight to start the season but had won 4-of-6 heading into Tuesday’s action.
“The biggest difference between this game and last game was we scored the extra goal. That was really it. The last game was the same, they had a lot of chances, we had a lot of chances. Their central defenders always give Andrae a hard time, so we just kept trying to move him into spots where he would be successful. Mainland is always going to be ready to go and we know it’s never going to be easy against them,” said Oakcrest coach Scott Meile. “It’s night and day from how we used to play to how we play now. We’re very much a traditional Oakcrest team. We’re tough, we just have a lot of tough kids. We have some technical kids, some home run hitters, and this has been a big week. We beat our rival, Cedar Creek (on Monday) and we turn around and beat Mainland, which puts us in a great situation to hopefully qualify for the CAL Tournament.”
Each team had several scoring chances in the first half, but both goalies — Jeff Thomas for Mainland and Joe Snodgrass for Oakcrest, who combined for 11 saves in the game — came up big for their respective teams. Thomas had a great diving save early on a shot by Oakcrest’s Jack O’Brien, one of the CAL’s most lethal scorers.
Mainland’s best chance came late in the first half when Ethan Rovins sent a beautiful cross in from the right side. It found the foot of Alex Wise, but Wise’s shot sailed just wide of the right post.
Oakcrest broke through early in the second half when Snodgrass started a counter attack by making a save and getting the ball out quickly. It got up to Johnson up top, and he sent a cross in to Stuber, who finished with a hard shot to the lower right corner for a 1-0 Falcons lead.
“There was a kid on my back, so I couldn’t really turn and dribble,” Johnson explained. “I tried that a couple of times and he was on me. But I saw Stuber right there and it was an open play. The only kid on him was a couple of meters away, so I just said to myself it would be better to pass this instead of trying to take the shot myself. I was happy he scored that goal.
“It was a tough finish. The guy was on his right side, but I knew (Stuber) had it because I know he has a good left foot.”
O’Brien drilled his PK into the lower left corner to push the lead to 2-0 with just a minute remaining, giving Oakcrest some breathing room after some steady pressure from Mainland the previous 10 minutes.
“I didn’t get a goal all game but in the last minute I was able to ice the game by giving us a 2-0 lead. That felt pretty good. We played through a bunch of adversity, too, in having to play back-to-back games with Cedar Creek yesterday and Mainland today. It was a pretty good game for us. I’m proud of this team,” O’Brien said. “This game, we changed formation and that helped us out a lot offensively. And our defense did pretty well getting us the ball. We had a lot more pressure up top and that changed the whole dynamic of the game.”
Oakcrest now turns its attention to Thursday and a road game at Ocean City (9-1-1, 8-1-1), which leads the CAL National Conference.
“It will be interesting to see how the next week goes, whether we can make the CAL Tournament and get some power points from that to see if we can move up in South Jersey Group 2. I’d love to go into (the state playoffs) with only one loss,” Meile said.
What’s next: Oakcrest travels to Ocean City on Thursday at 4 p.m. Mainland hosts Pleasantville on Thursday at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays