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NEPTUNE -- Rarely does the deck ever looked stacked against the Christian Brothers Academy soccer team -- winners of a record 11 Shore Conference Tournament championship and the current defending tournament champion.

But with the current No. 1 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament missing one of its two best players Thursday night in the SCT semifinals at Memorial Field and No. 13 seed Middletown North riding a high following a mid-second-half equalizer, the Colts were closer to elimination than they ever had hoped to be.

At that point, CBA needed a season-saving play from its senior star. With his senior teammate sidelined by injury, his team desperate for a goal and while being marked by, perhaps, the Shore's best defender, Colts senior Jack D'Eletto did what the best of the best do: he made a play anyway.

Blanketed by Middletown North senior center back C.J. Crolius and with the clock under 1:30 until the end of regulation, D'Eletto unleashed a 25-yard screamer to the upper right corner of the goal to break the tie and send the Colts to the Shore Conference Tournament final for the second straight year with a 2-1 win over the Lions.

"I felt like I had to do something," D'Eletto said. "At that point, there is only a minute and a half left and we really didn't want to go to overtime. I had to do something, so with three or four minutes left, I just told myself to be ready for the next one and the next opportunity I get, I have to take one. I missed too many opportunities and I had to capitalize on the last one and I did. It was awesome."

From the 20th minute -- when junior Dylan Millevoi put CBA up, 1-0, with a 25-yard, upper-90 strike of his own -- until the 64th minute, the Colts only led by a goal, but appeared to be in control of the game. Junior goalkeeper Miles Gallagher had to make a quick-reaction save on a close-range shot in the 27th minute, but outside of that scare, CBA looked poised to either clamp down for a 1-0 win or add one more goal to put it away.

In the 64th minute, however, Middletown North caught the Colts off guard and made it a game again. Crolius played the ball over the midfield and the only Lions player with a chance to make a play with it was freshman Paul Que. With standout sophomore Josiah Stepney sidelined with a red-card suspension, Que was among the players tasked with filling in up top and this was his moment.

The Lions freshman beat the last CBA defender to the ball on the left side of the 18-yard box and with a defender draped over him, he punched a shot past Gallagher and to the far right corner of the goal for the equalizer.

"We're a blue-collar kind of team from a working-class town," Middletown North coach Eric Morley said. "Some of our players were hurt this game, some of our players were out, we had a freshman step up and score his first goal against the number four team in the state."

With the match even, Middletown North rode a wave of momentum and was the more energetic team for the next 10 minutes. Once the 75th minute hit, CBA started to match the Lions' urgency and in the last two minutes, it paid off.

As the clocked moved inside of 2:00 and approached 1:30, junior Dimitry Corba got the ball on the left side of the midfield. Corba had already assisted Millevoi's first-half goal and had been as consistent as any CBA player in the game with his ability to win 50-50 balls, beat defenders one-on-one and keep the ball moving to the next man.

With 1:30 to go, Corba maintained position under pressure and found the space to get the ball to D'Eletto -- CBA's fastest player with the ball at his feet and among its most dangerous scorers.

D'Eletto collected the pass and was met by Crolius, who has been one of the Shore's most well-rounded center backs of the past three seasons and has been a standout one-on-one defender since his freshman year. D'Eletto moved toward the left post, then cut the ball back toward the middle of the the field, giving himself just enough space to uncork a shot to the open far post.

"I actually thought that was one or my worst looks of the night," D'Eletto said. "I thought I had two or three others that would have been much easier. The last one was one of the harder ones but sometimes, that's what happens. Score the hard ones, miss the easy ones."

D'Eletto got the shot off and sent the ball slicing toward the far right post, well out of the reach of Middletown North goalkeeper Andrew Marinelli, who quickly realized he had not chance to save it, but hoped it would slice off the post and out of bounds.

Instead, D'Eletto's shot tucked inside the post, under the crossbar and up against the side netting for a picturesque finish that gave CBA the lead back with 1:19 showing on the scoreboard clock at Memorial Field.

From there, CBA held down Middletown North for the final minute-plus and celebrated a second straight trip to the SCT championship game and 14th in program history.

What made Thursday's match so much tougher for D'Eletto, as well as for the rest of his teammates, was the absence of senior winger Will Thygeson due to a hamstring injury. Over the last two seasons, CBA's attack has been built around the ability of D'Eletto and Thygeson to attack with speed up the flanks, with the left-footed Thygeson on the left, right-footed D'Eletto on the right and Millevoi in the middle in CBA's 4-3-3 formation.

"I know Will is dying to be out here," D'Eletto said. "I really wanted to give him another chance to defend the title. I didn't want his Shore Conference Tournament to end on the bench. We definitely wanted to give him a chance to get back on the field so hopefully, he has a chance to play on Saturday."

With Thygeson out, however, CBA went to a 4-4-2 with only D'Eletto and Millevoi up top and Corba and junior Cameron D'Alterio playing wider in the midfield. The attack still generated opportunities for the Colts, particularly for D'Eletto in the second half, but the looks were a little different than the Colts have grown used to and Middletown North was able to turn them away.

"In the first half, I feel like I was getting a lot of space and we were moving the ball well as a team, but we weren't getting that last pass through, so that was a little frustrating," D'Eletto said. "In the second half, I feel like I, personally, had three opportunities that I should have capitalized on, so I was frustrated with myself."

On the other side, Middletown North was playing in its first Shore Conference semifinal since 2004 and was on the cusp of knocking off CBA to reach its first championship game since 1996. The Lions entered the tournament with a .500 record and took out Matawan, No. 4 Freehold Township and No. 12 Long Branch to make it to Thursday -- only the third time in program history the Lions made it that far.

"This is the third time in 61 years of Middletown North soccer that we're here," Morley said. "That game just left 61 years worth of people pretty happy."

 

The semifinal loss to CBA was also the Lions' second one-goal loss to the Shore's No. 1 team. CBA edged Middletown North, 1-0, in a regular season match at Middletown North on Oct. 6.

"They're fighters," D'Eletto said of Middletown North. "We knew that coming in. We beat them 1-0 in the first game and it was a hard-fought battle that could have gone either way, to be honest. I know they had some guys banged up and they kept fighting all game. They had nothing to lose: they're the (13 seed) playing the one seed and they played like a two seed tonight. They played their hearts out."

CBA moves on for another rematch with a Class A North opponent. The Colts will meet No. 2 Howell Saturday in the SCT championship game at Memorial Field, with CBA looking to win its 12th conference tournament in its 14th trip to the final while denying Howell its second ever championship and first since 2007. During the regular season, CBA topped Howell, 2-1, on Howell's home turf in a game in which both teams were missing a key starter -- junior defender Lawrence Mancino for CBA and senior center midfielder J.P. Candela for Howell.

 

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