By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Four games into the 2023 season, the Oakcrest boys soccer team was sitting pretty good. The Falcons were 2-2 and had outscored their opponents 14-8.
But then the bottom fell out, and the Falcons lost five straight — a stretch in which they were shut out twice and outscored 22-3. That kind of losing streak could have broken most teams, but the Falcons responded with a three-game winning streak, beating Lower Cape May, Middle Township and Wildwood Catholic, to improve to 5-7 and get back into the hunt for a state playoff berth.
Oakcrest currently is 5-8 after suffering a 3-0 loss against Mainland on Monday, but is in position to make states as the current No. 12 seed in the 16-team South Jersey Group 2 field. The Falcons have three more regular-season games remaining, against Bridgeton, Haddon Township and Vineland, all at home.
“You never want to go on a five-game losing streak. You win a game and you think you’re never going to lose again, but then you lose five games and then you’re really convinced you’re never going to win again,” head coach Scott Meile said after the Falcons took care of Wildwood Catholic late last week. “But we just kept the same message to the kids that the mistakes we were making were all fixable mistakes. The Cedar Creek game, the second time against them (a 6-0 loss on Sept. 30), it was like, ‘look guys, if we don’t play this ball, they don’t get the cross.’ Or, ‘if we don’t make this foul, they don’t get a free kick’ — fixable stuff, we just kept on them about that. And with the 50-50 balls, as the season goes on we’re getting better at those.”
Oakcrest has one of the best players, and scorers, in South Jersey in senior Jack O’Brien, a West Chester University commit, and he’s lived up to the hype with a team-high 15 goals and six assists, giving him 46 goals and 26 assists for his career. The offense is designed to get the ball up to him and let him create off the dribble, and also to find creative ways to use him on set pieces. But there isn’t a ton of varsity experience around him, as this team is loaded with freshmen and does not have a lot of sophomores or juniors to compliment a solid senior class.
“We have to at least defend. If we can defend, when you have a home-run hitter like Jack you hope somebody leaves one over the plate,” Meile said. “That’s our strategy, trying to get guys to defend and play the ball up to Jack.”
Still, some younger players have emerged as the season has gone by. Freshman Colin Cartwright has been a surprising asset on the outside and become a starter, and sophomore Bruce Bellace has done a nice job in the midfield, Meile said. Grant Tran, a junior, has added a couple of goals from his midfielder position as well.
“It’s played out as a more traditional season in the sense that our sophomore class — a couple of our kids, especially Bruce and Jacobo (Villota) — those guys have really stepped up. Bruce went from a 15-minutes-per-game guy last year to playing almost the entire state tournament game against Delran, and this year he can’t leave the field,” Meile said. “Grant Tran has played a great outside midfielder for us, and we have a freshman on the other outside mid who is playing 80 minutes every game for us. We don’t take Colin Cartwright off the field. He and Grant have really stabilized us on the outside.”
There have been some growing pains, though, which Meile said he expected with such a young roster and so many players up on the varsity level for the first time in their careers.
“All the teams in our league have the same problem — these are kids and they take long bus rides to Lower Cape May or Bridgeton, and sometimes they get off that bus and they can’t snap out of it,” Meile said. “We’ve had years where we lose those kinds of games. We knew once we got the win against Lower (on Oct. 2), the schedule breaks right for us the rest of October. We have an opportunity to put some wins together.”
Oakcrest has a pretty solid goalie in senior Joey Snodgrass (50-plus saves) and a smart, tough sweeper in Youseff Abdalla, but to make any noise in the state playoffs the rest of the defense will have to play well to give O’Brien and the offense a chance to put a goal or two in. Meile said he and the coaching staff have spent a lot of time trying to impress upon the players the importance of mental toughness and being able to continue to compete and play smart soccer when the chips are down.
“Resiliency is something that we’ve talked about all year. We have to be more resilient, we have to be tougher,” coach Meile said. “It’s not about how we are when things are going great and we’re winning games 5-1, it’s how we are when we go down a goal. It’s how we are when we are down 2-1 late in a game. That’s been the message. I believe in resiliency being the message and trying to be tough-minded. I’m not going to be the national Coach of the Year and our kids aren’t winning the national championship, these kids have a lot of things going on outside of soccer, but you still have to be able to get up and face the next challenge.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter (X) @GDsullysays