TOMS RIVER — Matt Stellitano lifted the Mainland Regional High School soccer team into its first-ever state final appearance with both hands and both feet.
Mainland’s senior goalkeeper made several huge saves and even scored on a penalty kick as the Mustangs beat Toms River South 7-6 in penalty kicks on Tuesday in a thrilling, marathon state Group III semifinal at Toms River North High School.
“Getting to shoot one (penalty kick) was the first time in my high school career, which is fantastic,” Stellitano said. “Scoring on it was the most important thing.”
Mainland (20-2-2), No. 3 in The Press Elite 11, will play North II champion Mendham in the state final 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Kean University in Union. Mendham beat North I champion Old Tappan in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
“We have 12 seniors who felt like we got cut short last year (losing to Toms River South in the state semifinal),” Stellitano said. “We all wanted to make sure that this year we played as many games as possible. Going into the state final we know that we want to win as many games as possible.”
Jack Sarkos, Keegan Ford and Jimmy Kryjer each scored twice in the penalty kick tie-breaker, along with Stellitano. Toms River South matched the Mustangs kick for kick and save for save until Stellitano stopped Clem Slavick to finally win the game and spark a wild celebration from the Mainland fans who made the hour-long trek up the Garden State Parkway.
“The pressure was on him,” Stellitano said of Slavick. “It’s not my responsibility to save it. He’s supposed to score.”
The teams played 90 minutes of regulation time and two 10-minute overtime periods with no goals being scored.
Mainland back Joe Palmieri made the save of the night to keep the game scoreless in the second half, somehow getting his foot on a rocket by the Indians’ Slavick with Stellitano screened off the play.
“We held the shutout thanks to Joey,” Stellitano said. “Joey played his butt off, blocked three or four shots. I owe him my life right now.”
“That was the play of the game, (Palmieri) stepping in like that,” said Mainland coach Chris Meade. “Both teams had chances. It was like a heavyweight fight, literally. At times they had the better play possession-wise. We tried to lock in, close the space on them and open things up top and use our speed.
"We were dangerous at times up there. Both teams close space so well, so there was no room to breathe. When that happens, it might not be the prettiest of games, but that was one of the hardest-working games I’ve ever seen.”
Mainland had a pair of scoring chances late in regulation. Sarkos drilled an open, straight-on shot just over the net. Toms River South goalie Jalen Folsom stepped up to corral a re-start kick by Ford while surrounded by a host of Mustangs.
There were anxious moments for Mainland in the first overtime period, as Stellitano had to flash his aggressive style to thwart several TR South combinations.
The first half was scoreless but wasn’t lacking in opportunities for both teams. Mainland’s Conner Juckett got a piece of the right post from a bad angle off a cross from Dan Adams. Akeem Sterling scored an apparent goal, but it was waived off in what seemed like a delayed offsides call.
Mainland won the South Jersey Group III championship last Friday, beating top-seeded Ocean City 2-1. It was the second straight sectional title for the Mustangs, who won their first ever sectional championship last season.
Tuesday’s game was a rematch of last year’s state Group III semifinal against Toms River South. The Indians (17-6-2) won last year, 2-1, after scoring a pair of goals within two minutes of each other in the second half.
That game left a bad taste in the mouths of the Mustangs going into this season, especially the 12 seniors on the team.