When it came to Cape-Atlantic League boys soccer this season, there were two players who stood out above the rest. Players who, even with other teams designing game plans specifically to stop them, went out and led their respective teams to perhaps the greatest seasons in school history.

Glory Days Magazine’s Boys Soccer Players of the Year, Gabe Paz of Oakcrest and Ahmad Brock of Egg Harbor Township, were simply dominant all year long and were the lynchpins for success for the Falcons and Eagles. Oakcrest went 18-4-1, set a single-season program record for wins, won its first Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship and advanced to the South Jersey Group 2 title game. EHT was just as impressive, going 18-6 and finishing second to St. Augustine Prep in the CAL American Conference while advancing to the South Jersey Group 4 championship game for the first time since the 1990s.

Similarly, both Paz, a senior, and Brock, a junior, were poised for breakout seasons after teasing area fans last year with their toolboxes full of talents.

“My expectation this year, after my sophomore year, was that I felt like I could have a breakout season this year, maybe 20 goals. I didn’t really know if I would hit 20, but once we got into the flow of the season and I started racking up some goals I was thinking, ‘wow, maybe I can get a couple goals here,’” said Brock, who finished with 27 goals and 15 assists in 24 games.

“It just happened to turn out the way it did with as many goals as I scored. But I was mainly focused on not only scoring, but also contributing with assists and creating options for my teammates to get them on the board as well.”

Paz was simply downright dominant. After suffering a sprained ACL as a junior, he came back strong this year and racked up 27 goals and 16 assists. There were only three games all year in which he didn’t record either a goal or an assist, and he had both goals — including a dazzling strike in overtime — to help the Falcons beat St. Augustine Prep in the CAL Tournament championship game. He also scored on a blistering direct kick in the first half that gave Oakcrest a 1-0 lead.

“Especially coming off his injury last year, I knew he was hungry, and, wow, did he ever perform. Really, it was just getting everybody on the same page and it was a balance of letting him do his thing but making sure everybody else was, too. It was like a well-oiled machine this year. You give him the freedom to let him do what he can do, and you put it inside a system, and it all worked,” said Oakcrest coach Joe Seaman.

“That direct that he took in the first half — wow, what a shot. He just buried it. I knew (Prep) was going to be the toughest opponent we played, but I thought we had enough weapons that if they double- or triple-teamed Gabe it would leave openings for other people. I knew we were good enough where we could score in other places with Mason (Stokes), and Asembo (Augo) put one off the right post toward the end of the first half — so I knew it wasn’t ALL on Gabe’s shoulders, but we knew he’d have to play well.

“When Shawn (McCourt) took that kick off the foul I said to my assistant, ‘man, he left it short.’ But then it was headed another 10 yards, it bounces another 10 feet and ended up at Gabe’s feet, and we just knew. Gabe has the ball inside the 18, we know it’s over.”

What contributed to both players’ incredible success, of course, was playing on really good teams and having all sorts of capable teammates surrounding them.

“One of the main things I worked on after last year was that I knew I needed to get stronger and I needed to have more confidence in myself. My sophomore year, I felt like I lacked confidence in critical areas, with finishing, and I thought if I got my opportunities this year I needed to finish them,” Brock said. “Having my teammates was a gift, E.J., Burak, all of them, they made it really easy for me to score goals this year, and they made it easier for teams not to mark me because they were all dangerous players. It was a great run and I had a lot of fun playing with my best friends. Those seniors will be moving on to bigger things, so I made sure I really enjoyed my last few games with them.”

Seaman said it is going to be extremely difficult for the Falcons to replace a player like Paz next year, even with the talent the Falcons are returning.

“His passing is so precise. Sometimes he puts it in a place where only one of his teammates can get it. There’s no way a defender can get the ball where he puts it sometimes and it’s a gorgeous thing to watch. He’s one of the top five players in school history. We’ve had a couple of Division I players come through, so it will be interesting to see how his career continues in college, and even beyond. I think he’s talented enough to play soccer as a career. He’s a tremendous player,” Seaman said. “It was really tough on him last year with the injury, and when he came off the injury he wanted to do more than his body would allow. As a coaching staff, we didn’t want him to make it worse. But he was ready to go in August, and he lived up to everybody’s expectations. Coming into this year there was a lot of pressure on him, but the pressure never got to him. He was always calm, cool and collected, and a great leader for this team. We’re going to miss him, and that whole offense. He had 27 goals, Mason had double-digit goals and assists, Nick Cacopardo had double-digit goals, so those three seniors across the top are going to be tough to replace.”

Brock, meanwhile, still has one year remaining, and plans to make the most of it.

“It was really my goal to have a breakout season this year and I thought I could take advantage of this opportunity. I was young my first two years but I feel like I have the experience now. I took advantage of opportunities more and it was just a better season all around than my first two years. I tried to keep my team energized the whole season. It’s easy when a team scores on you for everyone to put their heads down, so if we got scored on I made sure our team was positive, kept their heads up and was ready to move on,” he said. “I think I still have more improvement on my finishing to work on, and I think I can always get stronger and improve on my technical abilities, my footwork and my touch. We lost this year in the sectional championship, so I think we need to go out and win one next year.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

OTHER BOYS SOCCER PLAYER OF THE YEAR CANDIDATES:

Cole Gordon, Egg Harbor Township: He didn’t have a ton of goals or assists, but Gordon was a huge part of the Eagles’ run to the South Jersey Group 4 championship game. He played a defensive midfield position and in most games marked the opposing team’s most dangerous offensive player.
Mason Stokes, Oakcrest: A senior captain, Stokes helped the Falcons to one of their best seasons ever and a berth in the South Jersey Group 2 championship game by scoring 12 goals and adding 13 assists. He was a matchup nightmare on set pieces in the box.

Kevin Witkowski, St. Augustine Prep: Witkowski was a ball hawk in the middle of the field and the engine that made the Hermits go offensively. He racked up 17 goals and helped Prep win its first Non-Public A South championship in nine years.

Melvin Casco-Quintanilla, Pleasantville: The Greyhounds won 12 games and the Cape-Atlantic League United Conference title thanks in large part to Casco-Quintanilla, one of the most talented players in the league. He finished with 24 goals and 23 assists.

Owen Kitch, St. Augustine Prep: Kitch was one of the tallest and best defenders in South Jersey and helped lead the Hermits to 19 wins and a berth in the CAL Tournament final.

Shawn McCourt, Oakcrest: There’s a reason the Falcons won 18 games, the CAL National Conference and CAL Tournament titles, and advanced to the sectional final, and it’s because they had one of the best defenses in the state, led by McCourt.