By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
MOORESTOWN — The Mainland Regional boys soccer team had a plan to come into second-seeded Moorestown High on Saturday afternoon and pull out an upset win in the Southwest/Southeast Region, Group 3 championship game. But as Robert Burns once mused, ‘the best laid schemes O’ Mice an’ Men …’
The host Quakers got a first-half goal off a direct kick from senior captain Christian Trzeciak, and added a late tally from Cade McGrath to score a 2-0 win over the No. 4 Mustangs.
“We played well. We played a lot better in the second half. The first half was a little rough, but we did pick it up in the second half and I was proud of that,” said Mainland’s sophomore goalie, Jeff Thomas, who was forced to make a bunch of saves against one of the best offensive attacks in South Jersey. “I love everybody on this team and it was great playing with them. It’s going to be sad to see these seniors go, we had a helluva season.”
Trzeciak’s goal was a bit of bad luck for the Mustangs (12-4), as the ball simply slipped out of Thomas’ hands, he said. The Mustangs tried throughout the second half to get the equalizing tally but were equally as unlucky on several chances. The best chance came off the boot of junior Cooper McKinney in the 51st minute, but his laser shot sailed just high. Moorestown keeper Wyatt Atkinson also made a couple of key saves in the second half to keep the clean sheet.
“Anytime you are playing a good team they are going to try to play their game. Their game is in the air, they’re going to try to bang bodies, they are tall and physical. That was the adjustment we tried to make at halftime, was to get to our game, to get to our soccer style. But that’s a good team, credit to Moorestown for imposing their will,” said Mainland coach Alex Weidman. “It was evenly matched, I thought. But they are a big, strong and physical — they are a Moorestown team. We knew what to expect. I’m going to say all credit to our boys, they fought their tails off. They presented a lot of issues for us, but we hung on there and battled. We had our chances, too, and I thought we were dangerous when we played our brand of soccer. We said this when we went on our little win streak, that if we’re going to die on a hill, this is the hill we’re going to die on. And we did, we fought our butts off right to the end.”
Moorestown (11-1-3) had the lion’s share of scoring chances in the second half, but credit Thomas for coming up big inside the box on several occasions. With time winding under four minutes, however, Mainland had to push defenders forward in a desperate attempt to tie the game, and that left them susceptible to a counter. The Quakers cashed in with 1:17 remaining, as McGrath beat Thomas to the spot on a ball through on the right side and then deftly tucked a shot inside the left post for a 2-0 lead.
The loss stung for Mainland seniors Brett Bathoie, Austin Padula, Jacob Weeks, Daniel Wise and Luca Bongiovanni, but coach Weidman said the Stangs never would have made it to this championship game without that group. They helped engineer a season that saw losses to only Egg Harbor Township, Ocean City and Bridgeton, three of the best teams in the Cape-Atlantic League. Mainland finished second in the CAL East Division, a game behind EHT, and EHT, Ocean City and Bridgeton combined for a 29-6-1 record.
“We were battle-tested, EHT was a tough game for us, Ocean City, Bridgeton — those were good teams we played. We took our three losses and made improvements and I think those losses helped us. The only two goals we gave up the past seven games were today,” Weidman said. “For me, it’s all credit to this year’s seniors, the four returners and Jacob, they set the example for the younger guys and I couldn’t have asked for anything more from them. They gave us everything they had, all year, up until the last minute, up until the last second. When you’re building behind those guys, the young guys are going to fall in line and they know what it means to play for that ‘Mainland’ across their chest.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays