By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — In the sport of soccer, it seems as though there always is plenty of time. The game, at the high school level, is 80 minutes long. Each team has plenty of time to get something going. Until they don’t.
A penalty kick shootout was breathing down the necks of the Ocean City Red Raiders in Monday afternoon’s Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship game against rival Mainland Regional, and that’s not where Ocean City wanted to take this thing. The Raiders didn’t want to have to try to win a title in a shootout against one of the best keepers in the state, Mainland’s Genevieve Morrison.
So, entering overtime tied, 1-1, Ocean City knew it needed to figure something out, and it had just 20 minutes to do so. It took less than five, as sophomore defender Coryn McDonnell came forward on a corner kick in the 85th minute and knocked home a rebound to give the Red Raiders a dramatic 2-1 victory and their third straight league championship. (The tournament wasn’t held in 2020, and Mainland beat Ocean City in a PK shootout in 2018.)
“I knew that it was anybody’s game, it was just whoever wanted it more,” McDonnell said. “I just knew I had to get up there for the corner and get whatever I could on it. We just knew we had to play our game, and, obviously, it turned out well. This feels amazing. I couldn’t ask for a better game.”
“We like to try to drive for a corner. That’s not necessarily our game plan, but when it happens we like to capitalize on it,” said Ocean City coach Lisa Cuneo. “We sent Coryn McDonnell up just to get another body up there, and it wasn’t pretty but sometimes it just takes a toe-poke. She doesn’t usually go up on corners, it was just because the clock was ticking down and we were running out of time. It was just a coaching decision and everyone on the sideline agreed, let’s just push them all up.”
Mainland (10-4-1, 9-1-1 Cape-Atlantic League American) survived some early threats from Ocean City — including seeing a wicked shot from Ashley Rhodes ring off the cross bar in the 23rd minute and Morrison making an outstanding kick save on a shot in close — then took a surprising 1-0 lead with 13 minutes to go before halftime with a little trickery on a set piece. On a direct just outside the box on the left, Kylie Smith faked a right-footed shot that would have gone to the left of keeper Tori Vliet, then Emily Paytas came in behind her and curled a left-footed shot into the far left corner past a confused Ocean City defense.
Cuneo said there was a lot of frustration from her unbeaten Raiders at halftime being down 1-0.
“Halftime was rough. We all had our moments. We had tears, yelling, screaming, quiet silence — the emotions went full circle. But they are resilient. I told them that was going to be the word of the day. It just goes to show that you have to grind it out sometimes. We’re not known for pretty soccer this year, it’s not our thing. And it doesn’t have to be our thing as long as we get the job done. Hat’s off to Mainland, it’s always a battle with them, but that’s why so many people come to watch games like this,” she said. “At halftime we just told them to concentrate on their first touch. There was no strategy talk, it was just that your first touch builds your confidence, and I think that’s what we needed at the time. If their first touch is sloppy, then they get more flustered and things just get worse and worse, so it was just, ‘come out and concentrate on your first touch.’ I don’t know if that (speech) made a difference in the second half. We knew we were going to get our chances, and something had to go our way.”
But Ocean City (13-0-2, 9-0-1 CAL American) had the better of the possession throughout the first half, and the Red Raiders believed it was just a matter of time until they tied the game. That moment came less than four minutes into the second half when Naomi Nnewihe ran under a ball up to the front, got past a Mainland defender and crashed into Morrison. Nnewihe was able to keep her balance through the collision and tap in the loose ball to knot the game, 1-1.
“I just tried to do what I could for the team. The seniors on this team have been working their butts off —everyone has been working their butts off — so I have to contribute in some way,” Nnewihe said. “Genevieve is a great keeper, so it’s always good to score one against her. You just have to keep going, and one got through today. We felt it coming from the first whistle, we were just unlucky that they scored against us first. After the goal things were a little shaky, but we got back into it, got our groove back and put some into the back of the net.”
That was the first goal Mainland had allowed in the past 11 games, as the Mustangs came in riding a 10-game unbeaten streak in which they outscored opponents 29-0.
Both teams now turn their attention to the state playoffs, and McDonnell said winning a league title — and being tested the way the Red Raiders were against their arch rival — will go a long way toward preparing them for postseason play. These two teams could potentially meet again in the state playoffs.
“We knew (at halftime) that we still had 40 more minutes to play and, once again, it could be anybody’s game. We knew we weren’t out of it. They are always a great battle, it just feels great to get a goal and win this, like we did last year,” she said. “This gives us a lot of energy and we know we can get through anything.”
What’s next: No. 4 Ocean City hosts No. 13 Moorestown on Wednesday at 2 p.m. in the first round of the South Jersey Group 3 tournament. No. 7 Mainland hosts No. 10 Pemberton on Wednesday at 2 p.m. in the same tournament.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays