It’s been a rewarding season for Oakcrest High School senior Gabi Johnson.
She went into her freshman year wanting to leave her mark on the girls soccer program but suffered a knee injury that cost her the season. Her goal didn’t change, however.
Now a senior, she battled through a nagging injury this past season all while making her teammates better and leading by example.
Oh, and she walked away with the program’s all-time scoring record.
Johnson is the 2017 Press of Atlantic City Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
“It was very rewarding,” the 17-year-old from Mays Landing said. “I’ve been working my whole life to get to this point.”
Johnson will play soccer for NCAA Division I Temple University next season.
This season, she scored a Cape-Atlantic League National Division-leading 33 goals to go with a team-high 17 assists. She made other players around her better, including raising the level of fellow first-team Press All-Star forward Jana White, who had 18 goals and 13 assists.
“I couldn’t have broken those records without my teammates, especially with the help of Jana White,” Johnson said. “Most of my assists came from her. She definitely made my job a lot easier.”
Oakcrest coach Jason Hearn noticed Johnson was still hampered by knee injuries that plagued her for a portion of her high school career.
“There were games where you could tell she wasn’t thinking, just playing with everything she had,” Hearn said. “In warmups, maybe she was stretching a little more and I noticed a couple winces, but that didn’t phase her.”
It even rubbed off on a couple younger players, who battled through their injuries knowing Oakcrest had a short bench. The Falcons didn’t have a junior varsity team either.
Despite that, Oakcrest finished the year 15-3-3, dropping a 2-1 semifinal to top-seeded Haddonfield in a difficult S.J. Group II bracket. Johnson scored three of the team’s seven goals in the playoffs.
She also scored twice in a 3-2 upset win over Kingsway Regional in the first round of the South Jersey Soccer Coaches Association Tournament. It was Oakcrest’s first ever appearance in the prestigious tournament.
“I feel as I got older I matured mentally and got more confident,” Johnson said. “I think that had a lot to do with my success.”
Her 33 goals shattered the 21 scored by Jenna Sayers in 2015 as the new single-season record. In just three years on varsity, Johnson finished with 62 goals, passing Sayers’ 58.
“She wanted to put her stamp on her career here at Oakcrest,” Hearn said. “I saw her pushing herself to that next level and saw how far she could do that.”
Team and Coach of the Year
Ocean City went into the Sept. 9 season-opening game against Shawnee with a set lineup. By the time it was in the state tournament, that lineup was turned upside down.
Despite injuries, lineup changes and girls playing new positions, a freshman emerged and Ocean City found itself back on top. The Red Raiders won the South Jersey Group III title for the first time since 2000, capping off a season which included a second-straight CAL National championship.
Ocean City (19-4-1), No. 6 in The Press Elite 11, and fifth-year coach Kelly Halliday are the Press Team and Coach of the Year, respectively.
“I think they bonded together. This team had such good chemistry,” Halliday said. “I’ve had more fun this year than any year. We weren’t ready to be over. We had way too much fun.”
In the first game of the season, junior forward Tori Rolls broke her collarbone and missed the rest of the year. She was expected to be the leading scorer this season.
Already having to make her first big move, Halliday moved freshman Faith Slimmer up from the midfield. It turned out to be one of the best decisions this season.
Slimmer broke out as an elite player, scoring 21 goals and adding eight assists.
“Oh my gosh, Faith is a great player,” Halliday said. “She has the skill set to be dangerous, and I think when she plays with the girls more often she will be more dangerous. Teams will play around her, which makes our team faster and better.”
Slimmer and sophomore Delaney Lappin were first-team Press All-Stars. Other key players were freshman Paige Panico, sophomore Abbey Fenton, and juniors Anna Devlin and Natalie Stinson.
The Red Raiders lose just two seniors, Haley Harper and Hannah Nathan, whom Halliday was thrilled to see get a sectional title at the end of their careers.
“My two seniors were great,” Halliday said. “But I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch. We know what it takes to get there. We can do it again and have a few more years. I told them the road to success is going to be uphill.”
A look ahead
Ocean City returns nearly its entire team. With a year experience under its belt and returning Tori Rolls into the mix, the Red Raiders will instantly be the favorite in S.J. Group III again.
It will also be excited to see what Slimmer does in her sophomore year, especially when coupled with a top scorer like Rolls.
Mainland Regional will look to bounce back from a disappointing end to its season. The Mustangs graduate a handful of key seniors but return a good group for next season. They too will compete in S.J. Group III.
The Press Elite 11
1. Washington Township 18-4-3
2. Eastern Regional 21-0-2
3. Toms River North 19-3
4. Cinnaminson 19-1-3
5. Haddonfield 19-3-1
6. Ocean City 19-4-1
7. Bishop Eustace 15-4-3
8. Oakcrest 15-3-3
9. Delsea Regional 20-2-1
10. Kingsway Regional 15-3-2
11. Mainland Regional 15-4-1