Two goals from junior Ryan Hammer led Manalapan to its first Shore Conference Tournament title since 2006, as the top-seeded Braves defeated third-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven 2-1 on Saturday night at Summerfield Stadium.
Manalapan head coach John Natoli watched his team fall behind 1-0 early in the first half after the Bulldogs’ Pete Martin scored in the ninth minute.
The Braves took control of the midfield shortly after falling behind, as Hammer equalized in the 23rd minute.
“The guys just showed a lot of character, being able to come back and get the win,” Natoli said. “It was the first time we trailed in this tournament, and I’m proud of the way they were able to respond.”
It has been an incredible turnaround for the Braves, who finished last year with 5-10-3 record. The Braves won Class A North this season, and now have their first SCT title in seven years.
“I have to attribute that a lot to the guys, they came in shape in August and were ready to go from the start,” Natoli said. “They have gelled together tremendously. Not only are they teammates on the field, but they are good friends off the field as well.”
Winning this tournament is special for Natoli, who believes it can be tougher then winning state sectionals.
“You have teams from all different groups playing in this tournament,” Natoli said. “It’s always a nice feeling to be able to win this one.”
The game really picked up in the second half with the score still tied at 1-1. In the 65th minute, freshman Rocky Garretson played a through ball from the wing to Ryan Hammer. After beating one defender, Hammer dribbled by Rumson-Fair Haven keeper Chris Tierney and finished the game-winning goal.
“Rocky played in a great ball, and the goalie came out on the play,” Hammer said. “I was able to get around him and just poked it in for the goal.”
The targets were on the backs of the Braves, being the top seed of the tournament. It was something that motivated Hammer and his teammates throughout the SCT.
“Everyone pulls for the underdogs in these tournaments, and you never really want to be put down like that,” Hammer said. “It’s an awesome feeling to be able to win this after the season that we had last year, going from that and being able to come out and win the Shore Conference is unbelievable.”
Although the Braves will enjoy this win, according to Hammer, the team is still focused on the upcoming NJSIAA Tournament that kicks off this Tuesday.
“We are already talking about states, the job is not done we still have another one to win,” Hammer said.
For Rumson-Fair Haven, it’s a heartbreaking loss for a senior-heavy team that played in its first SCT final. Rumson head coach Will Gould was still proud of what the team accomplished this tournament.
“I think we sat back and played a little too defensive tonight,” Gould said.
Rumson-Fair Haven had one final shot to equalize with 10 minutes left after Eamon Kitson was taken down in the box. Kitson stepped up to the penalty spot, but pushed the ball wide right.
“I have faith in every single one of the players for the PKs,” Gould said. “Its tough that he missed that one, but you have to give them (Manalapan) credit for the way they shut us down defensively.”