By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
The great thing about tournaments is, once you get in, anything can happen. Just ask the Mainland Regional girls soccer team and the Egg Harbor Township boys squad. Both came into the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament as fourth-seeded wildcard teams and decided underdogs in the semifinals of the four-team brackets, yet each found a way to survive and advance on Friday, earning berths into today’s championship games.
Mainland (11-2-1) handed Middle Township its first loss, getting goals from Emily Paytas and Jane Meade, and seven saves from keeper Genevieve Morrison to top the Panthers, 2-1, and advance to face the Mustangs’ old nemesis — Ocean City. Mainland beat Ocean City last Tuesday, 1-0, on a goal by senior Camryn Dirkes in the waning seconds of double overtime, ending the Red Raiders’ 45-game unbeaten streak that had stretched back nearly three seasons. Ocean City (14-1) — the No. 2 team in the state, according to nj.com — beat Mainland 3-1 back in mid-September and earned its berth into the CAL Tournament finals with a 3-2 win over previously undefeated Millville.
Millville had a 2-0 lead nearly 60 minutes in, but then Ocean City senior Summer Reimet — who recently became the program’s all-time leading scorer — took over. She scored three goals, including the game winner in overtime, and got assists from Hope Slimmer, Coryn McDonnell and Naomi Nnewihe.
Ocean City hosts Mainland today at 4 p.m. with a chance to win its second league championship in the past three years (the CAL Tournament was not held in 2020). For the boys, Hammonton hosts EHT today at 4 p.m.
On the boys side, Hammonton (13-3) punched its ticket into the finals with a win over Middle Township (12-2-1) on Friday, and EHT (10-3) pulled a big upset over St. Augustine Prep (12-2-1), a team that was riding a 12-game unbeaten streak since a loss to Delran in early September.
“They are legit. They are a good team that we saw earlier this year, and we played tough, but they were the better team that day. Knowing we had to face them again in the semis, we wanted to make sure we did our homework and I’m super proud of the way we played,” said EHT coach Pete Lambert. “I told the boys winning that game (Friday) was huge for the team and the program, but I was more happy with the system we put into place and the boys executing that to perfection.”
Prep has some serious talent with guys like Ethan Torpey and Aidan Davis up top, Brian Sharkey and Patrick Earnest in the middle and Shane Clancy in the back, and the Hermits like to play a free flowing style out of the back that allows for creativity and Prep using its speed to get long passes up and out to the wings.
“The boys kept our formation and kept our shape and they bought into the system we wanted to run. The Prep was frustrated. To go down 1-0 like we did and bounce back with two goals was huge. That was an incredible effort from all the guys,” Lambert said. “I think their best player is the Clancy kid in the back. Everything runs through him. They like to play through the back, they like to knock it around and they want teams to chase and then — boom! — they can be super dynamic, playing balls through the midfield or playing it out wide and all of a sudden they are in the attacking third. We wanted to let them play around a little bit. We didn’t apply a bunch of pressure until they were about 20-to-25 yards out, then we just sat in the lanes and tried to take all their outlets away. Once they look into those outlets, their options weren’t there and they were frustrated. They couldn’t connect as easily or the way they wanted to. We stayed very patient. We didn’t want to over-commit and get into a chasing game. It was fun to watch the boys executing that plan.”
Even with a great game plan, however, EHT found itself trailing 1-0 in the second half because of a Hermits goal by Ryan Wieand early in the second half. But the Eagles got the equalizer off the boot of Dominic Talvacchio and then took the lead in the 65th minute when Matt Sanchez took a feed from Jackson Griffith and buried a shot into the corner to give EHT a 2-1 lead. From there, the Eagles packed it in and played defense.
“We preached all week about what we wanted to do and each day we talked about it, put everything on the board and watched some film. Fortunately, we had some time to do that before we played them, so our boys were ready,” Lambert said. “They knew if we carried out the plan we would have a shot, and even after giving up that goal, the boys never put their heads down. They kept working and sticking with the game plan, and once we got the first one to tie it, we knew we could get another one because of the way we were playing.”
EHT — normally the host school for the tournament finals in pre-covid seasons, had yet to win the championship in the three seasons of its existence. The Eagles will get their chance against a Hammonton team they are very familiar with. EHT lost to Hammonton at home on Sept. 13, 2-1, then returned the favor on the road, scoring a 2-0 win on Oct. 4.
“For any team, playing a team a third time is always difficult, but if we play the way we did against the Prep and get the kids to buy in, we could have another good day on the road,” Lambert said. “We’re excited to be in it. Drawing the wildcard was a tough draw to go play at No. 1 seeded Prep, but we did our homework and we carried out our plan. As a coach, it was a proud moment to watch these kids execute.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays