EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Soccer isn’t normally the type of sport that is described as “a game of inches” but in overtime of the South Jersey Group 4 championship game a few inches were all that separated the joys of triumph and the agony of defeat for second-seeded and host Egg Harbor Township.

In the first overtime period, senior midfielder Kevin Aguiriano ripped a shot from about 15 yards out that hit off Toms River North keeper Dawson Kaniuk’s hands and then deflected off the crossbar and was cleared. Just a few inches lower and EHT would have had itself a walk-off win and a championship.

A few minutes later, Parker Nicholson got free on the right side and drilled home the game-winner from about 20 yards out, giving the 16th-seeded Mariners a dramatic — and improbable — 2-1 victory. North advances to next week’s Group 4 state semifinal, while EHT is left to wonder what could have been.

The Eagles got a first-half goal from Aguiriano, who cleaned up a header that Ahmad Brock had flicked back across the goal, and also got a couple of chest-thumping saves from keeper Jeff Castro in the second half as he stopped back-to-back penalty kicks from Nicholson to keep the lead intact. But with a shade less than 32 minutes remaining, the Mariners tied the score at 1 when Logan Mack’s header found the left corner of the net following a corner kick that was played short then put into the box. That set up Nicholson’s overtime dramatics, as each team had plenty of chances but both keepers continued to make saves to keep the score tied.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen but I knew as soon as he hit it that it was going in and I started running toward our crowd. It was crazy. Time just kind of stops for a minute. I’m speechless right now. Coach says all the time that it doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish, and once this tournament starts it’s a new season and it doesn’t matter what happened during the regular season,” Mack said. “They have some great players, some dangerous players and a lot of weapons. They were tough to deal with, definitely one of the best teams we’ve played all year. All credit to them, that was a great game, but this is unbelievable.”

“This is unbelievable. I almost passed out when I saw that goal in, I was that excited. I just really feel good for these players, the amount of time they put in, the hard work — we preach hard work all the time. I’m extremely proud of them because they are good kids, good character kids, and they deserve this,” said Toms River North coach Joe Mahon. “It’s all the boys. We just talked to them about years past, the history of this program. These guys just love being around each other and they don’t want it to end. We were like, ‘why not us?’ I said to the kids that we were good enough to make some noise in this tournament, we just have to get in. I think they believed me. We’ve been playing a solid 80 minutes (in these playoff games) and it’s unbelievable to pull this one out.”

Following the loss, EHT coach Pete Lambert talked about missed opportunities, and there were plenty for the Eagles as well as the Mariners, but there also was a ton of great play by two talented teams going at it with a title on the line.

“That’s a good team and they are here for a reason. They got into the tournament and made a run. This one is tough to swallow because we had our chances. We didn’t lose this game because we were outplayed — we lost because they took advantage of their chances. We had plenty of our own, we hit the crossbar, we had chances in the first half to maybe go up 2-0,” he said. “But the boys battle and I told them we’re happy for what we did all year. This is a tough one, but remember the positives and all the good we did this year, and how far we’ve come. It’s going to be difficult for these guys, especially the seniors, but they left it all out on the field today. It’s exciting to look back on what we’ve done, but it is tough to lose the way we did.”

Toms River North came into the state playoffs as a .500 team, but after taking down No. 1 Clearview, No. 8 Cherry Hill East, No. 4 Jackson Memorial and now No. 2 EHT, the Mariners head into the state semifinals 10-6-1 and having won 5-of-6 since a first-round loss in the Shore Conference Tournament to Manasquan. Mahon said the key to beating EHT was somehow finding a way to contain Brock, one of the most dynamic strikers in the state.

“Brock is a handful,” he said. “A lot of our game plan was trying to deal with him because they would drop numbers behind the ball and then counter attack with him. We were just trying to get numbers behind, get two or three guys around him and get the ball off his foot because he’s very difficult to deal with.”

“I told all my teammates we were better than a No. 16 seed and I knew we were going to win that first game. Once we got that first win our momentum really started rolling,” Mack said. “I yelled at the guys a lot at halftime and I think I got under their skin a little bit, but we stuck with it. Nobody put their head down and we fought the whole game until overtime, and came out with the win. We’ve fought through a lot of adversity this year and there’s nobody else I’d rather be in this situation with than this team.”

Lambert said a lot of emotion poured out in the locker room following the loss from an EHT team that was making its first trip to the sectional championship game since the 1996 season. The Eagles finished 18-5 overall.

“This one is a tough one in the moment, for sure, but when we look back on it in a day or two we’re going to realize how special it was to win 18 games, to make a run through the playoffs the way we did, to be at home throughout the playoffs, to get into the Coaches Tournament — those are the fun things we can take away from this season,” Lambert said. “Obviously, watching the other team celebrate on our field is a tough one to swallow. They are young men and it’s hard. There are a lot of guys in the locker room who are trying to collect themselves right now because they are emotional. I got emotional in there too, the coaches and myself love these guys like our own children and to see them upset makes us upset. They played for EHT, for their friends, their family, for each other — and that’s all we can ask.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays

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