By Ryan Fennell
Editor’s Note: Middletown South lost to Ocean, 3-2, in the semifinal on Thursday.
Middletown – It took two overtime wins to get there but the Middletown South Eagles have reached the semifinal of the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time since 2002.
As the 10-seed in the tournament the Eagles battled for nearly 100 minutes against seventh-seed Toms River East on Saturday before eventually winning on PK’s, 5-3.
On Tuesday, South was granted a home game in the quarterfinal round after Monsignor Donovan upset second-seeded Colts Neck, 1-0, in the first round.
But, facing the 15-seed for a chance to advance to the semifinal was no easy task for the Eagles as Monsignor Donovan clearly established itself as a worthy opponent having dispatched Colts Neck earlier in the week, a team that South faced twice in the regular season, losing one and earning a tie in the other.
The Eagles were also playing shorthanded against the Griffins and had to make several adjustments to their game plan after losing James Merges to a hip injury late in the second overtime in the game against TRE.
“We had to change around our whole lineup and game plan,” Middletown South head coach Pat Petretta said. “We had a lot of kids playing different positions. By the second half I think they felt comfortable.
“We discussed before the game we have very versatile players and we needed guys to step up in the right situations and they did,” he added. “That’s all you can really hope, that these guys are just going to capture the moment and run with it.”
South eventually got the game winner from Kevin Monaghan in the 87th minute when Monaghan drilled a penalty shot to the upper right corner of the goal that deflected off the hands of Griffins’ keeper Paul Kelly and into the back of the net for the 1-0 victory.
A Griffins defender had been called for a tripping penalty in the box when Monaghan broke free on goal in the overtime period, setting up the free shot.
Trouble finding an offensive rhythm early on, the Eagles played most of the first half spoiling Mon Don’s opportunities, which inflated the Griffins’ confidence in the second half.
Monsignor Donovan outshot South in the second half forcing Eagles’ keeper Sam Altland to make several saves and keep the game scoreless as regulation time expired.
But, the Eagles weren’t about to let the game get away from them forcing several opportunities in the overtime and keeping the Griffins on their heels.
South broke free for three legitimate chances in the extra time but Kelly made several spectacular stops until the tripping foul set up Monaghan’s game winner.
“We’ve worked hard for the past four years,” an emotional Petretta said after the game. “Being here from the beginning, my first year we had one win – one win. Getting to the semifinal as the 10-seed I’ve got so much adrenaline I can’t even talk.
“The best thing about us is we’re extremely battle tested,” he added. “We’ll be ready.”