Shore rolls to sectional title

After tough sectional final losses a year ago, the senior members of the Metuchen and Shore Regional High School girls soccer teams did not want to end their careers with a defeat in Tuesday’s Central Group I championship.

But the Blue Devils, who hail from Monmouth County towns that were decimated by Hurricane Sandy, were playing for a much larger cause.

Shore Regional won its first sectional title in a decade and second in school history by scoring as many goals against the Bulldogs as they had surrendered all season long in a 5-1 victory.

“Normally we play for our seniors,” Shore Regional coach George Moutis said, “but this year the girls wanted to play for the Jersey Shore. The girls said we want to play – not for our seniors, not for us – just to win it for them.”

Moutis was referring to residents of Monmouth Beach, Oceanport, Sea Bright and West Long Branch.

Metuchen (18-3-1) coach Val Gazda, whose eight seniors endured their fourth consecutive defeat in the Central Group I final, said losing to a school such as Shore Regional, whose families were impacted by Sandy, takes some sting off the loss.

“Their recovery is based on what their school does for them,” said Gazda, who was vying for her 300th career victory. “It just takes their minds off what their towns are going through.”

Metuchen lost the 2011 sectional final to New Egypt on penalty kicks and the 2010 sectional final to Point Pleasant Beach on an own goal. The Bulldogs’ best player was knocked out of the game early in a 2009 sectional final loss to Robbinsville.

Shore Regional, which endured a 2-1 loss to Robbinsville in last year’s Central Group II final, received goals from five different players while advancing to Tuesday’s state Group I semifinal against South Jersey champion Haddon Heights.

Samantha McDonough doled out two assists, while teammate Caroline Slater had a goal and an assist. Lauren Britton, Julia Luebs, Claudia LaMarca and Gabrielle Russo also hit the back of the net for Shore Regional (14-6-1).

The second-seeded Blue Devils, who had success off corner kicks in a 3-1 sectional semifinal win over Point Pleasant Beach, converted two corner kicks in the game’s first 12 minutes to deflate top-seeded Metuchen.

The Blue Devils opened the scoring in the eighth minute. Slater curled a corner kick onto Metuchen keeper Katie Murphy. She punched the ball directly to the feet of Luebs, who one-timed a shot inside the far post for a 1-0 lead.

Four minutes later, Slater headed a perfectly placed corner kick inside the far post from senior center midfielder Jesse McDonough, who will continue her career next fall at Princeton University.

Until Tuesday, Metuchen was unscored upon by Group I schools over the past two years in the flow of the game (the only goals the Bulldogs surrendered were off restarts).

Shore Regional possessed tremendous speed with the ball at its feet throughout the lineup. The Blue Devils demonstrated an ability to play through Jesse McDonough or with width by working the ball to the wings, where forwards could beat defenders one-on-one off the dribble.

Metuchen’s flat back four was effective in the opening half, but the Blue Devils figured out how to penetrate the defense in the second half by playing away from center back Bobbi Spiegel.

Shore Regional netted three-second half goals. Russo tapped a cross from Samantha McDonough inside the near post for a 4-0 lead in the 46th minute. LaMarca headed a cross from Samantha McDonough into the back of the net in the 73rd minute. Britton closed out the scoring with a goal off Jesse McDonough’s feed in the 78th minute.

“We figured out how their defense worked,” Jesse McDonough explained. “We knew they had one really good girl who would just come in and sweep and sniff out any opportunity we had. We changed our style a bit and played a little bit quicker.

“We know how to adapt to different teams and how they play their defensive style. Basically we try to focus on playing those one- and two-touch passes, playing quick to feet, being aggressive. Metuchen — even though we had a majority of the ball in their half – was aggressive and we got pushed off the ball sometimes. So for us to come back at them, we just used our skills and our width of the field.”

The Bulldogs were outshot 20-5. Paloma Aguas scored Metuchen’s lone goal on a penalty kick following a handball in the box in the 73rd minute.

Metuchen keeper Katie Murphy, who will play next year at Wagner College, limited the damage, making a brilliant kick save on a Slater blast in the opening minutes and stuffing Samantha McDonough following a give-and-go inside the box in the second half. Samantha McDonough also hit the right post with a rocket of a shot from 20 yards out in the 23rd minute.

“The girls played their hearts out,” Moutis said. “Possession-type soccer is our game and that really transcended to controlling the ball and tiring the other team out when they had to run around without the ball. That’s our game plan and the girls played it to a T. I can’t ask for anything more.”

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