OCEAN CITY — It’s nothing but unfinished business for the Mainland Regional High School boys soccer team now.
After defeating rival and top-seeded Ocean City 2-1 on a blustery, chilly day at Carey Stadium, the second-seeded Mustangs celebrated their second straight South Jersey Group III trophy. Several players, including the Mustangs’ 12 seniors, repeated the phrase, “unfinished business.”
The Mustangs will head back to Toms River North High School for a state Group III semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Standing in their way, once again, is Central Jersey champion Toms River South, which defeated Mainland 2-1 in a 2016 state semifinal.
“We didn’t like the way it ended last season,” senior center back Jimmy Kryjer said, “and ever since the start of this summer, we had one goal, and it’s just to get back there. We’re ready for it.”
Junior forward Jack Sarkos scored the game-deciding goal against Ocean City with 13 minutes, 29 seconds left in the second half. It made the score 2-0 and held up as the winner after Ocean City scored late in the game.
“It’s great, man. It’s indescribable,” said Sarkos, 16, of Linwood. “Two years in a row, and I have next year, but I’ve been playing with (the seniors) since I was 8. It’s great, and I just wanted to do it for them.”
It was the second year in a row Sarkos contributed a crucial score in the S.J. final. Last year, in a 2-1 win over Hammonton, Sarkos had the winning goal.
“He’s just extremely dangerous,” Mainland coach Chris Meade said. “He has a gear and motor that just doesn’t stop. And in big games, he shows up even bigger.”
The temperature for Friday’s game along the ocean was in the upper 30s. Add in gusts that reached 20 mph, and both teams had to battle through tough conditions. That’s why when Mainland won the pregame coin toss that determined possession and which end to defend, the team captains elected to have the wind at their backs in the second half.
That proved to be a factor.
Mainland took a 1-0 lead with 3:10 left in the first half. Dom Bongiovanni sent a ball ahead and to the right side of the penalty area. The ball turned in the air, and when Conner Juckett got to it, Ocean City keeper Garrett Vliet wasn’t in position to make the save.
The Red Raiders sustained pressure throughout the game, possessing the ball roughly 70 percent of the game, even in the second half with the wind in their faces.
The Mainland defense, led by seniors Dan Adams, Kryjer, Geoff Anapolle and Joe Palmieri, kept the Ocean City chances to a minimum. Senior keeper Matt Stellitano made six saves.
“It’s not just the defense. It’s all 11 players on the field,” said Kryjer, 17, of Linwood. “Ocean City’s a great team. They have a solid offense and (are) solid all the way throughout, but it was good we were able to come out on top today.”
With much of the second half gone in a 1-0 game, Ocean City’s defense attempted a clearing chance, but the ball deflected off a defender and went straight to Sarkos. The junior buried the shot for his 26th goal of the season.
With 4:16 left in the game, Ocean City finally put one past Stellitano.
Senior defender Matt Zelinski won a race to the ball and tapped the shot into the open net to cut the score to 2-1.
It was the fourth sectional final appearance for the Red Raiders in the past five years. Even about a half-hour after the game, seniors lingered to share some final words with coach Aaron Bogushefsky.
“These kids don’t want to leave the field,” said Bogushefsky, who wrapped up his ninth season. “We have a program here, I think, they really buy into. We do a lot of fun stuff and a lot of things that just bring us closer together, and I think the fact that’s over is what hurts, more so than losing.”
Mainland Reg. 1 1—2
Ocean City 0 1—1
Goals—Juckett, Sarkos MR. Zelinski OC.
Goalies—Stellitano (6) MR. Vliet (4) OC.
Records—MR 19-2-2, OC 18-3-1.