Oakcrest boys soccer coach Scott Meile said he knew there were going to be some ups and downs this season with a sizeable group of young players needed to make contributions to the varsity squad. And he knew the Falcons’ schedule was pretty tough in the month of September. What he didn’t expect was a gut punch at the end of that month in the form of a five-game losing streak that threatened to blow up the whole season.
Several experienced players he thought were going to be key contributors ended up leaving the team to focus on other sports, and that left star forward Jack O’Brien, goalie Joey Snodgrass and a whole bunch of question marks. The Falcons got outscored 22-3 during that losing streak, and after a 5-1 loss against Pleasantville, Meile told the whole team to take the next couple of days off so that everybody could get their heads straight.
Only, his players didn’t take any time off. O’Brien — the senior captain and West Chester University commit who ended up scoring a team-high 25 goals — organized his teammates into some informal practices, without the coaches, to see if they could get themselves right.
The Falcons won three straight to start the month of October, and eventually won six of their final 10 games and earned a berth in the South Jersey Group 2 state playoffs, where they fell to Lindenwold in the opening round.
“I’m always thinking about how we can get better, how we can adapt a little bit. The kids did all the work. They kind of took the defensive tone that we talked about in the early part of the year and applied it in the second half of the year,” Meile said. “They really just started defending the way that we were capable of. We don’t have a lot of kids who play year-round soccer, but we have a lot of kids who are fast, strong and athletic. You can teach a fast, strong, athletic kid how to defend and close down space — the goals we gave up in the second half of the year were all just great plays by the opposing team. We just didn’t give up a lot of easy opportunities and that’s what I was most impressed by is that we really started defending.
“In the playoff game, I thought we made one mental mistake that kind of sealed the game for them. But I was impressed that the kids just defended with much more vigor and that that kind of carried us the second half of the season.”
Most of the offense came from O’Brien, who netted 25 goals and had seven assists, but senior Alyns Polynice, a transfer from Atlantic City, chipped in three goals and five assists and the Falcons got some outstanding play from freshman Colin Cartwright as an outside midfielder.
Meile said he was torn for much of the early part of the season between just keeping O’Brien up top and letting him do his thing offensively, or having him hang back in the midfield to cover up some weaknesses the Falcons had with inexperience in that part of the field. Eventually, he just turned the scorer loose and let the chips fall where they may.
“I’m always trying to find new ways to do things with Jack, moving him all over the field. We lost at Pleasantville and we took two days off. Everyone was upset and sad, and I just told everyone to go home for two days. We had to step back and kind of sort it out. When we came back I was like, ‘alright, we’re done experimenting with Jack. Just cut him loose, we have half a season here. We just have to see what we can get.’ We had a couple situations where we would have to defend and I probably should have had him up top, but I wasn’t sure we could win games 5-4, or 4-3. I thought we had to win games 2-0 or 1-0. But in the second half of the year we just cut Jack loose and that really changed our fortunes,” Meile said. “Last year, we had experienced center backs and this year we just didn’t have that experience. At the beginning of the year we talked a lot to Jack. We had a one-goal lead at Bridgeton and at halftime we said, ‘Jack, what do you want to do? We have the goal lead. It’s the second half, can we sit and try to defend?’ Jack says, ‘no, I think we should still keep going for a goal.’ We ended up losing, 2-1, and I’m kicking myself like, ‘why am I listening to him?’ But throughout his whole career he’s proved me wrong every step of the way. He’s just so dynamic. He’s one of the best goal scorers ever to come out of this school. We lost at Bridgeton and we turn around and beat them. We lost badly at middle and then we came home and beat them. He can take over games because it’s not just his striking ability, it’s how well he plays going forward. If there’s any kind of restart within 30 yards, it’s a real goal-scoring opportunity for him.”
What helped Meile and his staff tremendously was the fact that the younger players — and even the other seniors — knew that in order to win games and make the playoffs, O’Brien had to be the guy to score the bulk of the goals, and they were OK with that. It’s not always easy for other players to defer to a star player, but his teammates had so much respect for O’Brien that they wanted to see him have as much success as possible.
“He scored off a restart against Bridgeton from about 20 yards out. They had two kids in the wall and as soon as they lined up and I saw Jack think about it, but shook my head like, ‘they just really don’t think he’s that that good,’ and he struck the ball and the goalie didn’t even move, didn’t even flinch and it was in the back of the net. That was cool to watch,” Meile said. “That’s the thing about younger kids, you hope they embrace that — you want them to embrace that. We were lucky that this group of kids really embraced that. They looked at it like, every time Jack had the ball it was a chance to win the game. Every time we worked the ball up the field, it was Jack’s opportunity to score, and I was just really impressed at the young kids because I didn’t think they were going to be like that. On some teams the younger guys want to get their shot, too, but this group was different. They all worked together. I couldn’t ask any more of these kids, they really pushed themselves this year.”
What could have been a disaster at the end of September turned into a pretty good season for a team that, for all intents and purposes, was in a rebuilding year. The Falcons finished 8-11, including 5-7 in a pretty tough Cape-Atlantic League National Conference, and earned a trip to the state playoffs. Not too bad for starting a bunch of freshmen along with the handful of seniors Meile had.
“I think for the kids and myself the best part of the season was getting into the state tournament, and that win against Pleasantville at home. That’s a team that had kind of just spoiled us the last couple of years. Last year we tied them at home when they were short-handed and we just got crushed when we went there. The last three years we’ve gotten blown out by them, so when they came to our place that was a huge game for us,” Meile said. “At one point in the season everything seemed to be going wrong, so I’m just happy we were able to compete and get to a place where we could be in the state playoffs.”
Sully, as he’s known throughout South Jersey, began his newspaper career in 1995 and has worked for some of New Jersey’s top papers, including The Asbury Park Press and Press of Atlantic City, as a writer and editor. He’s earned several New Jersey Press Association awards and continues to produce high quality reporting, writing and photography.
A native of Ocean County, Sully played high school baseball at Lacey Township High and college baseball at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina. After a successful 15-year career in the newspaper business, Sully launched Glory Days Magazine in 2013 and for nearly a decade has been bringing fans outstanding and insightful coverage of high school sports throughout South Jersey.