All season long the Monroe High School boys soccer team has been battling high preseason expectations.
While their regular season did not go as well as they had hoped, Monroe continued its strong postseason play that started with its run to a Greater Middlesex Conference championship and continued in the NJSIAA Central Group IV final on Tuesday.
The sixth-seeded Falcons won on the road for a third straight game, upending top-seeded Jackson Memorial, 3-1, to claim their first sectional title since 1987, 25 years and one day to the date.
They will face Washington Township in the Group IV semifinals on Nov. 27 at 7:30 p.m. in Neptune.
“We as a program and as players, we want this,” said 14th-year coach Steve MacKenzie. “I’m very huge in the development of the players and preparing them for times like this, so sometimes we sacrificed things in the regular season. I maybe should put more emphasis on the regular season, but these guys never lost confidence, they know their ability.”
Monroe (17-6-2) made its mark right away when senior forward Sean Doyle, who has been the Falcons go-to scorer this tournament, scored in his third consecutive game after he booted in a ball from about 12 yards out off an assist from Mike Mischler just four minutes into the game.
“I definitely didn’t expect this, being the go-to player,” said Doyle, who was not sporting a mask on his face for the first time since breaking his nose on Oct. 4 after being cleared by doctors on Monday. “I have so much confidence in my defense and I know once we go 1-0 up they’re going to hold it for us.”
The Falcons made their lead 2-0 in the 18th minute when junior midfielder Matt Anderson was able to poke the ball in off of Doyle’s feed.
“We wanted to try to make (Jackson) as uncomfortable as possible, especially playing them at their place,” MacKenzie said. “We put a lot of emphasis on getting at least one goal, if we could get two that would be great, but we needed that first one to set the tone.”
Jackson Memorial (23-2) cut the lead to 2-1 and made things interesting at the 65-minute mark when Matthew Frye connected on a free kick from 20 yards out, but in the 73rd minute senior forward Luigi Buffolino scored the clincher as he tapped in a ball from Kyle Kaplan.
“Coach told us first one to three, wins, so I had the chance and I had to bury it for the team,” Buffolino said.
Tyler Utheim finished with six saves for the Falcons, coming up strong in defending 11 corner kicks from the Jaguars, while Connor Josko made seven saves in defeat.
A sectional title is something Monroe’s been chasing for a while, and now they’ve finally got it.
“I know I’ve been talking about this for a year and a half,” Doyle said. “Before the season even started, this was my focus over GMCs. This is what I wanted. And as a team we came clutch and we’ve just been working our butts off.”