By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
RICHLAND — Everybody loves an underdog story, and the St. Augustine Prep soccer team will get to use that status as motivation when the Hermits head into the Non-Public A South state playoffs as a No. 4 seed.
But on Monday afternoon, the Hermits were the bully on the block, as they whipped up a five-goal first half attack and cruised to a 6-2 win over Mainland Regional to prove they are the current kings of the Cape-Atlantic League. It was the second straight CAL Tournament championship for the Hermits, who bested top-seeded Hammonton a year ago.
Any thoughts Mainland might have had of pulling off a major upset were put to rest within the first 15 minutes, as the Hermits applied relentless pressure and took an early 2-0 lead. Just six minutes into the game, Drew Davis put St. Augustine Prep up 1-0 when he blasted a rebounded save into the bottom right of the net. Just five minutes later, the Hermits doubled their lead when Alex Clark ran down a long ball heading to the flag and played a beautiful cross into the box. Ryan Wieand was there for the one-touch goal into the top right corner.
“We circle this one every year. First and foremost, we want to dominate the conference, and then head into states and see how much damage we can do. It all starts with representing the conference,” said Prep head coach Justin Abbey, a former Hermit who won a pair of state titles while in high school. “Our philosophy is that we feel like we’re the best team, so it’s about us putting ourselves on the other team regardless of who we play. Every team we play has belief (that they can beat us) but you come out and get a couple quick goals and all of a sudden they start questioning.”
Before Mainland (11-5-1, 9-3-1 Cape-Atlantic League National) even had a chance to regroup it was 5-0, as the Hermits racked up three goals in the final five minutes of the first half. Clark scored the first of his two goals in a one vs. one situation to make it 3-0 in the 35th minute, and four minutes later senior captain Sal Coppola scored off a long throw-in. With less than a minute to go before halftime, John Paul Mazza drilled home a rebound and put an emphatic stamp on the rout.
“We wanted to start the game early, and I feel like that’s what we did,” Coppola said. “We wanted to keep control of the game, and I feel like that’s what we did throughout all 80 minutes. The creativity and the drive to complete our goals, and the determination really comes into effect in big games like these.”
“We really didn’t know much about Mainland coming in, so it was really just get out here, take care of business early and win a championship. That was the goal,” fellow senior captain Justin Ceccanecchio said of the Hermits’ game plan.
Aidan Clark tallied a goal for Mainland early in the second half to cut the deficit to 5-1, but Alex Clark added his second goal in the 67th minute to put a cap on things. Karim Aksenov scored Mainland’s second goal in the 72nd minute but by then any thoughts of a comeback were all but gone.
St. Augustine Prep (15-1, 13-0 CAL American) rebounded from a tough 1-0 first-round loss to Lenape 10 days ago in the South Jersey Coaches Cup tournament — a tournament the Hermits had visions of winning after garnering the No. 1 overall seed. That loss has put the fire back in the Hermits after their 13-game winning streak to start the season was snapped.
“Anytime you lose it’s energizing, it lets you reset a little bit, and to be honest, it makes you mad,” Abbey said. “We don’t like to lose. We don’t like the feeling and thank God we’ve only had one this year. But that definitely recentered us. We were ready to go today. The guys were amped. It was more about trying to keep them calm than getting them up.”
“Last week, we lost a Coaches Cup game against Lenape, and we didn’t want that to happen again,” Coppola added. “We took that loss and we drove it through this game. We wanted to start strong and leave a message that we’re still here.”
“After a tough loss in the first round of the Coaches Cup — that was heartbreaking, so to come out here and be able to win a trophy is a great feeling. It sucks to get a loss like that in the first round as such a high seed, but I feel like that was a wake-up call for us. Going into the postseason, we just have to keep working hard. You have to cherish every last minute of this season we have together. Us seniors, any game could be our last at this point so we have to just keep working hard together,” Ceccanecchio said. “We’re hot right now. We just have to keep everyone together and focused going into the last few games of the season. We’re feeling good. It was a good win here, so the motivation is up and the motivation is up. We’re feeling good going into states.”
St. Augustine Prep now turns its attention to the state playoffs. The Hermits received a first-round bye in the sectional tournament and will host either No. 5 Paul VI or No. 12 Union Catholic in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
“We know there are great teams on the horizon for us, but we feel like we’re a great team, too,” Abbey said. “We’re not an easy out for anybody and I don’t think anybody in the state — CBA, Pingry, all the top teams — they’re not looking for us so we get to go into those games as an underdog with nothing to lose. We’ll play free and loose and have some fun.”
For now, though, the Hermits will enjoy this win as they prepare to face Salesianum School (Del.) on Thursday as a playoff tune-up.
“I’ve never been happier, going back-to-back is a great feeling, especially with this group of guys,” Coppola said. “The passion and the brotherhood we have for each other, the willingness to bleed and to sweat for each other and fight for each other — I couldn’t be happier right now.”
WHAT’S NEXT: St. Augustine Prep hosts Salesianum (Del.) on Thursday at 4 p.m. Mainland hosts Seneca on Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 3 sectional tournament.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays