Big comeback lifts Ocean City past rival Mainland
LINWOOD — On the list of qualities a championship team possesses, the ability to handle pressure and respond when faced with adversity is right up at the top.
With, for all intents and purposes, the Cape-Atlantic League championship on the line Thursday afternoon, Ocean City fell behind 4-0 after one quarter and 6-2 by halftime, but responded with nine second-half goals to rally for an 11-10 win over rival Mainland Regional.
"We still have two games left, so we're not celebrating anything yet. We have to beat Cedar Creek on Monday and the CAL will be ours. We came in with a pretty good mentality. We knew it was going to be tough to win here. Every year, the last two years that we've been here, it's been an overtime game. And it looked like toward the end it was going to be that way, so we knew we were going to have to embrace their run in the beginning," said Ocean City coach Joe LaTorre. "My hat's off to that Mainland team. That's not a bad team. I perceive that they will go pretty far in the playoffs. They are very well coached and they out-hustled us in the first half. That's what killed us. It was 6-2 and we gave up two really bad goals, which you never want to see. But I'm just happy our team got it together and slowed it down. They were patient. The team I had my first year, they'd be pushing it right away. But these guys knew we had 17 minutes, one goal at a time, just chip away and we'll get there."
In Cape-Atlantic League boys lacrosse, teams play each other twice during the regular season, but only one matchup counts toward the league standings because of an unbalanced schedule. Ocean City beat Mainland 10-5 on April 15, but the Red Raiders were told after the game by LaTorre that when they traveled to Mainland in early May, that would be the game that counted. Last season, Ocean City shared the league title with EHT and Oakcrest, but a win over Cedar Creek on Monday with give the Red Raiders this year's crown outright.
"The offense really stepped it up the second half. We knew being down didn't mean anything. Last year, we were in the same situation and we knew we could come back and win," said Will Nickerson. "It's definitely hard when you don't have home-field advantage in a game like this, especially the one that counts, but no matter what you have to come out and play the game no matter where it is or what the conditions are."
Mainland (13-1, 11-1) jumped out of the gates and scored four unanswered goals in the first quarter, including two from Vincent Giunta. Ocean City (12-3, 12-0) cut the deficit in half on a pair of Jeremiah Johnson goals, but the Mustangs pushed their lead to 6-2 before halftime on goals by Keegan Ford and Ethan Irizarry.
"I said, 'that was 24 minutes we played, and we came out flat. We beat them 10-5 the first time, and we thought we were just going to roll up here and lay down," LaTorre said of his halftime speech. "We made a lot of defensive adjustments. We threw zone at them toward the end and that really threw them off. They didn't really have any answers to the zone. In addition to that, we switched our matchups. We got a long pole on their kids who were scoring and put shorties on guys who were just feeding the ball. We just tried to make defensive adjustments. Offensively, we knew it was going to roll. In the first quarter, we had four shots hit the pipe. I said to the guys, 'that's just luck. Can you control where the ball goes when it hits the pipe? No.' My biggest thing going into this was don't worry about things you can't control. High school kids, they worry about officials, they worry about weather, the field. Thank God they finally bought into that and listened."
Ocean City outscored Mainland 5-2 in the third quarter, as Johnson and Marty Cattie each scored a pair of goals to help cut the deficit to 8-7 heading into the final quarter. The Red Raiders then tied the game less than two minutes into the fourth on a goal by Tommy Cusack. They took the lead on another Cattie goal, and Cusack's second goal of the game pushed Ocean City's lead to 10-8. Mainland battled back with goals from Giunta and Irizarry before Johnson scored what proved to be the game-winner with 4:13 left.
Red Raiders goalie Mark Kolmer came up with some huge second-half saves, including one late on a point-blank shot by Irizarry.
"I think the momentum that Mark had from a few saves really carried over. The last one, I can't wait to watch it on film. Ethan Irizarry had him dead to rights, wide-open shot, and Mark made a huge save," LaTorre said. "Now, their goalie (Hunter Faunce) played out of his mind. I coach him in the summer and I've never seen him play as well as he did today. He's only a sophomore, and we have one more year with Mark, so next year is going to be just as good."
Faunce finished with 16 saves for Mainland, while Kolmer countered with 12 for Ocean City.
"It was an awesome game. Last year, we had the same kind of score and we won in overtime. Luckily, we came out with the win in this one," Johnson said. "We just kept our heads. We just said we were going to keep possession and take smart shots. Putting some goals in the net really helped us, and we started rallying around each other and were believing in each other."
Said Nickerson, "We knew they were going to come out strong, and we had to come out strong. At halftime, we just had to get it together and come back with a new mindset and play the game that we play. We didn't play how we can play in the first half, and we knew in the second half we had to get it together."
LaTorre credited the experience of his senior in keeping the team together when Mainland jumped out to a 6-2 lead.
"This senior class is one of the strongest I've ever had. Not even from a skill set, they're very good leaders," LaToree said. "When we were down, they were saying, 'calm down, we got this.' And that's what we needed, that senior leadership to tell everybody it's OK, the game's not over, there's still time on the clock and we are still alive."
Nickerson said the Red Raiders are hungry for even more.
"The CAL was on our bucket list. But we're looking for a South Jersey title," he said. "The CAL championship is great, we want to win it outright and not have to share it. It's onto the next one. It's a (sectional) championship we're looking for."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays