By Rich Fisher
Nov. 6: It was a season that brought a lot of smiles.
But none were visible today.
Losing in heart-breaking fashion, 3rd-seeded Steinert allowed two goals in the final 25 minutes to drop a 2-1 decision to 6th-seeded Toms River East in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III girls soccer semifinals.
The Spartans (19-2-1) had won the Patriot Division and Mercer County Tournament titles already this year and were anxious to put a sectional crown in the vault as well. But when Monmouth-bound Jillian Conklin went to work, it spelled doom for the home team.
Conklin, who entered play with 31 goals and 9 assists, scored with 24:25 remaining in the game to tie it at 1-1. With 15:15 remaining, she took a ball with her back to the goal and, with an innate sense of exactly where she was on the field, turned and rifled one into the long side for what proved to be the game winner.
The Spartans decided not to mark Conklin with one defender all over the field, but to collapse several players her when the ball got in her vicinity. It worked well for 55 minutes.
“She found openings,” coach Mike Hastings said. “Two times the ball found her in the middle and we were split apart and she took advantage of it. That’s why she’s going to Monmouth, that’s why she scored 30 goals. Our game plan was right on, we just didn’t execute in the second half.”
Conklin said she wasn’t surprised by the Spartans strategy.
“Normally I’m man marked,” she said. “But they have some really good players. I feel that wasting one of them on me would take them out of their game.”
With 15 minutes to get the equalizer, the Spartans put up some mild challenges, but nothing too difficult as the Raiders went into a defensive shell to protect their lead. It was Steinert’s first attempt at a comeback since Sep. 13 when it fell 2-0 at Allentown. This marked the only time all year the Spartans did not hold on to lead.
“Eventually you’re just fighting,” Hastings said. “Maybe a little panic or a little nervousness sets in when you’re tied or down 2-1. Then the pressure is on us. We didn’t really play our game in the second half.”
Despite the loss, Steinert enjoyed its finest season in Hastings’ four years. But that was of little solace to the large collection of seniors who played the final game of their high school careers.
“It’s not easy to smile right now,” the Stinger said. “But that’s exactly what I told all the girls just now. We have a team that won seven games four years ago to a team that won 37 the past two years. That’s an impressive feat. There’s a little consolation in that last year we didn’t come away with anything, this year we have a division title and a Mercer County Tournament.
“We hang our hat on that right now, but we really wanted to get to the final of another tournament. But that’s a great team, she’s a great player. The ball bounces weird, and the ball went their way today.”