By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

SICKLERVILLE — Last fall, the Timber Creek High boys soccer team was chock full of seniors — more than a dozen of them — and the Chargers got off to a great start. Through the first week of October, Timber Creek was 7-3 and had outscored its opponents 22-14. The Chargers had visions of winning a sectional championship, and maybe even more.

Then injuries and a bout of covid swept through the team, decimating a once-promising season. Timber Creek lost five of its last six games, including a 4-0 blowout loss against Cherry Hill West in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 3 state playoffs.

This year’s version of the Chargers features a lot of new names and faces to go along with a newfound optimism. Sure, Timber Creek is young, but it has an outstanding back line anchored by a couple of star seniors and some hungry players in the midfield looking to make a name for themselves. On Saturday morning, the Chargers took a big step forward in their development with a hard-fought 2-1 win over visiting Oakcrest, a team that was in both the Cape-Atlantic League and South Jersey Group 2 tournaments a year ago and a squad that boasts one of the top scorers in all of South Jersey in senior Jack O’Brien.

“Last year was rough. We had covid go through our team the last week-and-a-half of the season and in our playoff game we started off strong but couldn’t hold it,” said Timber Creek skipper Sean Ortzman. “When you start getting injuries and sickness, it’s a real thing. When you start losing guys for extended periods of time, not a lot of good things happen. I keep telling these guys that every game we’re going to get better. We’re going to be more of a team and learn more about each other, and I think with a young group that has a couple of older guys, they are going to get better with experience.

“This is a great win for us,” he added. “Every game we play, though, we focus on the game at hand and when the game is over I want them to relish in what we did but then get right back to it and figure out those little things that we didn’t do and try to work them out.”

Timber Creek’s Billy Luxama, left, tries to control the ball in front of Oakcrest’s Cole Sanders during Saturday’s first-half action. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

Timber Creek (1-0-1, 0-0-1 Tri-County Liberty) jumped out to a 2-0 first-half lead, weathering an early push from Oakcrest (0-1, 0-0 Cape-Atlantic League National) before dominating possession for the final 25 minutes or so of the half. In the 24th minute, Jack Feinberg beat Falcons keeper Joey Snodgrass to the spot on the left side of the box and was able to poke a shot into the lower right corner to give the Chargers a 1-0 lead. Later in the half, Luke Conaghy sent a cross in to a wide open Bryce Mullison, who deposited a shot into the lower left corner.

“We don’t give up. When we were up 2-0 at halftime, we knew we had to play it like it was 0-0. We were owning them side-to-side, so we just had to keep playing our game. We got off to a little bit of a slow start, but once we got rolling we didn’t stop,” said senior captain and defender Dylan Convery. “We started shooting the ball more. In the tie (in our season opener, a scoreless tie with Deptford) we weren’t getting shot off, but today we had multiple chances, we were getting rebounds. Both of our goals today were off great plays. None of them were solos, they were team goals. We just tried to get the ball into the box and keep our shots low. It’s hard for a keeper to go from one post to the other.”

The Falcons got within striking distance early in the second half on a play that head coach Scott Miele said his team had no business making.

Freshman outside midfielder Collin Cartwright ran down a ball on the right side that nearly went out of bounds, and his hustle paid dividends. He sent a pass in to O’Brien, who took a touch and pushed the ball to his right before ripping a shot from about 25 yards out that went upper-90 to the right. That cut the deficit to 2-1.  

“We just tried to keep an eye on him. We didn’t man-mark him,” Ortzman said of O’Brien. “Our two best players are defenders and we just kept an eye on him all game. We had him frustrated early, but he still came out with a sweet goal. He’s a tough player and will be very successful this year. Our guys knew him from club ball, so it was nice to see them pull in and take care of business.”

“Those kids for them play hard. It was interesting to see how they were lining up against us. They wanted to take Jack out of the game, and I think it took them about 50 to 55 minutes to realize that he’s that dominant force I was talking about (in the preseason). All of a sudden he turned it on — but, this is what we need to talk to him about is, how do we get that out of him for more minutes?” Miele said. “The goal we scored — the coaches were on the far sideline and I said, ‘that’s going out of bounds.’ And you see our freshman outside midfielder run onto it, Cartwright set up Jack in the box; it was an amazing shot, but that shot doesn’t happen if Collin doesn’t get to that ball. Seeing a couple freshmen get into the game, some of them looked pretty green but a couple of them looked good. Collin Cartwright is somebody we’re definitely going to be leaning on and trying to develop at the varsity level.”

Each team had chances in the final 30 minutes, but Oakcrest had several shots said high and Timber Creek had a shot from distance ring off the crossbar.

“That first goal was on me. I flip-flopped the outside mids, took our stronger outside midfielder and put him on the other side then they scored the goal on the left side, and that kind of hurt. The second goal, we have an inexperienced back who was overlapping on a ball that was 50 yards away,” Miele said. “The second half is what we’ll try to build off of in the coming weeks. We have a lot of conference games coming up and we’ll just try to get better.”

Jack O’Brien, right, who scored Oakcrest’s lone goal, tries to gain possession from Timber Creek defender Bryce McWerter. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

Miele said he expects his club to play much better once they get a little more time together in the midfield.

“Especially in the midfield, we’re a work in progress with guys like Alyns Polynice and Kelvin Urena. They are still trying to figure each other out,” he said. “Kelvin did a good job in the first half of winning the ball. He got a little nicked up in the second half so he wasn’t quite as aggressive getting to the ball, and Polynice makes it look so easy in practice but when you get into games, (other teams) are sitting on that right foot of his and making him go left, so he has to adjust. Those two kids in the center are seniors and they are kids we need to take over the game and settle us down.”

Ortzman said his team, too, is a work in progress.

“My team is kind of young and they are learning who they are. They’re trying to put it together, take all the stuff from practice and put it into games. We have good senior leadership with Dylan and Toby. They are the backbone of our team and they are working really hard to get these young guys into shape,” the coach said. “We lost all of our goal scoring from last year, having graduated 13 guys, so coming in this is a whole new regime of players. Our goals are going to come from things that happen on the field as a team — we’re not going to have one guy who is going to run the show. It’s going to be a bunch of guys who score. I had a freshman and a sophomore score today, and that’s what we’re looking for, a lot of young guys to step up and fill in these roles.”

Convery said a win like the one Saturday morning can be a nice confidence booster for the Chargers, who have tough games against the likes of Delsea, Highland and Clearview later this month.

“This year we’re coming out harder, playing as a team, communicating and helping each other out,” he said. “Every game we have to bring it. We slowed down toward the end of last season, but this year we’re not going to stop. We’re giving it our all every game.”

WHAT’S NEXT: Timber Creek travels to Triton on Monday at 3:45 p.m. Oakcrest hosts Lower Cape May on Tuesday at 4 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays