For the better part of two years, the Holmdel boys soccer team found ways to win games that seemed to be out of reach. One game away from a second straight NJSIAA boys soccer Group championship, the Hornets finally met their postseason match Sunday in the Group II final at the College of New Jersey.
Bernards senior Erick Vilagra scored the game's only goal in the 33rd minute and Holmdel's furious second-half attack fell short as the Mountaineers held on for a 1-0 win and their third NJSIAA title in program history.
Holmdel had won five games by a one-goal margin to reach the Group II final, including two in which the Hornets trailed 1-0 at one point.
"I couldn’t be prouder of these kids," Holmdel coach John Nacarlo said. "We overachieved all season with some of the games we were behind in and came back against some of the better teams we faced.
"It was an amazing run for these guys and we kind of had the feeling that we were going to do it again. We had our chances but unfortunately, we couldn’t put one in."
After a sluggish first half that put them in a 1-0 hole, the Hornets picked up the attack against a more defensive Bernards formation. The Mountaineers outshot Holmdel 7-2 in the first half, but the Hornets responded with a 5-1 edge in the second half against a Bernards team that played with 10 players behind the ball for the final 4 minutes.
"They started playing back with 40 minutes left, and pretty much the whole second half we had chances," senior captain Sean O'Neill said. "They pushed back the whole half and I thought we’d get lucky with a chance, but it didn’t happen. Their goalie was good, their defense was solid. I don’t know. They deserved it."
Holmdel's best chance came eight minutes into the second half when junior forward and 20-goal scorer Zach Bond broke free for a breakaway opportunity, but slid a low shot just wide of the far left post from the right side of the 18-yard box.
"That one's going to haunt me," Bond said. "But Zach has been huge scoring goals for us all year and sometimes you get the bounces and make them and sometimes you don’t. We had some chances, they just didn’t go in."
Bond has faced double and triple teams throughout the postseason and Bernards' backfield bottled him up for most of the game, save for that one chance in the 48th minute.
"It was really hard to get opportunities with the way teams were playing me these last few games," Bond said. "I had to work off the ball a lot more and keep working harder and harder to get my shots. I kept working, I got an opportunity and I just missed it wide. I don't know how I missed it."
Holmdel had two shots on frame during the second half that Bernards goalkeeper Sam Polito saved, but nothing close to as dangerous as Bond's opportunity. Polito made a critical mistake in the 71st minute when he attempted to pick up the ball outside the goalie box, resulting in a hand-ball call and a direct kick from 19 yards out near the left end-line.
Bernards, however, cleared the ball away following Sean O'Neill's service to the far side of the box and Holmdel never got off another shot.
While the Hornets dominated second half, Bernards set the tone during the first half and finally broke through with Vilagra's one-timed header into an open net. Charlie Overton started the sequence with a corner kick from the right side and after Holmdel cleared the ball out of the 18-yard box, Overton again found the ball at his feet.
This time, Overton sent the ball diagonally from the right side to the far left post and after Holmdel goalkeeper Mitch Walier came out too far to try and snatch the ball out of the air, Vilagra positioned himself for the header and the deciding goal.
"Defensively we had been playing so solid," Nacarlo said. "I really feel that we were fine as far as marking on the field. I kind of knew they liked to draw the ball to the end-line and get the crosses off and unfortunately for us, that’s how they got their goal. They got the ball across the box, we should have had it and unfortunately we didn’t and they put it in the back of the net."
Holmdel could not generate much offense in the first half, but senior Fergal Cluskey-Gallagher did get a clean shot off from inside the six-yard box off a free kick in the 26th minute. His shot skipped just wide of the right post.
Cluskey-Gallagher, who scored the winning goal in Holmdel's 2-1 win over Haddonfield on Tuesday, gave his team a scare during pre-game warm-ups when he turned his right ankle and had to be helped off the field. He had the ankle taped and played his normal minutes in the central midfield.
"It sucks that it happened because it threw us all off," Nacarlo said. "We were all worried about Fergal and it threw off our warm-ups and I think that’s why we kind of came out flat. First half, nobody was really talking to anybody on the field and it was weird. I thought we were going to come out and play real hard but it didn’t happen right away."
"Some of the kids were panicking before the game and I don’t know why," O'Neill said. "I knew he was going to play and even if he didn’t, I thought we had a good chance to win. That’s not the reason we lost though. They got one goal. We couldn’t do anything about it."
Sunday was the first time in two years that Holmdel has been shutout. Over the past two seasons, the Hornets have won at least 20 games and combined to go 42-5-1. Before the 2010 season, Holmdel had neither been to a state final, nor won 20 games.
"The kids that are coming back next year, they know what it takes to get this far," Nacarlo said. "If we get a chance to win another state championship, we’ll get there. We’ll have that opportunity."