By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

Conventional wisdom told Oakcrest boys soccer coach Scott Meile to put junior Jack O’Brien up top as the Falcons’ primary scoring threat when the season began back in early September. It was the smart move. O’Brien, after all, is arguably the best player in the Cape-Atlantic League and one of the best and most creative in South Jersey with the ball at his feet.

So, the theory was to send the ball up to O’Brien and senior striker Andrae Johnson and let them go to work on opposing defenses.

The only problem was, in that formation it became too easy for opposing defenses to double-mark O’Brien and Johnson, not allowing them the space and freedom to do what they do best. The Falcons won four of their first six games, but there were a couple of ties thrown in the mix in games they felt they should have won. Then came a 2-1 loss to Mainland.

Junior Jack O’Brien leads Oakcrest with 10 goals and seven assists this season. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

Something had to change, so in late September Meile switched up the Falcons’ formation, sending O’Brien back to become Oakcrest’s primary central midfielder while leaving Johnson up top to do his thing. The results were noticeable right away. After a 1-1 tie against Ocean City, the Falcons ripped off four straight wins to improve to 8-1-3.

“We’re on a pretty good winning streak,” O’Brien said after the Falcons beat Mainland, 2-0, in the rematch on Oct. 11. “We started off with a couple of ties, but now we’re picking it up. As the games have been going on we have a new strategy. Changing our formation definitely helped us with our scoring, especially against Lower Cape May. We were in a 4-5-1 and messed around with a 4-4-2 for a bit, but we changed to a 4-3-3 is working pretty well.”

“Most of the teams we face now we feel like we can take them on and they can’t stop us if we work as a team,” Johnson said after that win over Mainland. “In the beginning of the season we weren’t getting a lot of shots off and we weren’t getting the ball up top. Now, we’re going to the lines, crossing the ball in and looking for our teammates up top instead of trying to do everything ourselves. The passing has gotten better and the shots are getting better.”

“There has been a momentum in terms of them being a little more coachable and a little more flexible. In the preseason, I harped to our central defenders and the guys in the middle of the field that we have to be able to throw different looks at people. (Against Mainland on Oct. 11) we were in a 4-3-3 (alignment), saw we were getting kind of beat up in the midfield — but you see the growth in the kids in being more flexible (to be able to change alignments during a game),” Meile said. “We talk about dealing with adversity and being flexible, and now we’re in a situation when we say we want to go to a 4-4-3 there aren’t three or four kids saying we can’t do that. We can, we have the guys who can do it, it’s just a matter of finding the right roles for guys. We like to play 16 players so we can keep people fresh.”

Meile said putting O’Brien into the midfield has really opened things up for the Falcons. In six games in the month of October, the Falcons have scored 12 goals.

“Jack can win the midfield. He’ll still create scoring opportunities (from the midfield). He has to learn to be a little more patient, but he’s getting that experience and understanding that coming from the midfield position he might be unmarked or unchecked, where as when he’s playing one of those top forward spots there’s always going to be bodies on him,” Meile explained. “We saw that against Absegami, against Cedar Creek. We’re trying to get Jack and Andrae into better situations.”

The Falcons will need to get those two into the best positions possible as the South Jersey Group 2 playoffs begin Thursday. Oakcrest — which has lost three straight games since that four-game winning streak — has to turn things around quickly or its season will be over before Halloween. The Falcons earned the No. 11 seed in the section and will be on the road at No. 6 Delran, a traditional South Jersey Group 2 powerhouse. The Bears are 8-3-5, but have been playing really well lately, having gone unbeaten in their last six games, including outscoring opponents 12-1 during their current three-game winning streak.

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