DELRAN – Mike Otto believes big players step up to the forefront in big games.
That’s why the Delran High School boys soccer coach was not surprised when John Strohlein took on the hero’s role in the Bears South Jersey Group 2 championship on Friday.
Strohlein, a senior all-American midfielder, scored three goals as the No. 1-seeded Bears won their third straight sectional title with a 4-1 victory over No. 2 seed Haddonfield.
“Johnny steps up for all these big games,” Otto said. “I think it’s a credit to him. The top players step up in big games, and Johnny did it once again.”
Strohlein’s effort helped lead the Bears into the state semifinal where they will face Central Jersey champion Holmdel at Hopewell Valley High School.
For Strohlein, it was an almost perfect way to end his career on the home field where he has produced so many of his career highlights.
“I’m just happy for him,” Otto said. “He played a great game.”
This had been one of the most anticipated games of the season since Haddonfield was looking to avenge a one-goal loss to the Bears in last year’s title game.
Strohlein’s performance helped turn the game into a rout.
“I went into the game confident that we were going to win,” Strohlein said. “We knew Haddonfield was a quality team, and I didn’t expect the scoreline to be the way it was. Our guys came out to play today and that’s what happened.”
Strohlein set the tone for the game when he headed in a goal fewer than three minutes into the action.
Later in the first half, he popped in a corner kick goal, and then he sealed the outcome with a free kick that found the net in the second half.
The first goal was a like a dagger in the heart.
“(That goal) put a lot of confidence into our team,” Strohlein said. “It gives you a chance to have the upper hand through the entire game. They have to claw back and it’s not an easy position to come from.”
Otto said scoring early was one of the team’s targets for assuring success.
“It was huge,” he said. “One of our coaching points was we need to get on the board early and take the pressure off of the defense and take them out of their game a little bit.”
Haddonfield coach Ryan Nixon agreed that the Bulldawgs were quickly thrust into a bad situation – one that got worse when Strohlein scored his second goal off a corner kick set up by Mark Olivo with 16:19 to play in the half.
“It was very difficult,” he said. “I felt like their first two goals came off our mistakes. They happen in games like this, especially when you’re put under pressure the way we were . . . we just couldn’t find that goal today.”
But he said the loss did nothing to take away from the Bulldawgs’ season.
"This is the best group of kids I could have ever asked for,” Nixon said. “They're winners and play with so much heart. I could give you a list that I thought played their heart out today.”
Another player who helped fuel the Bears charge was Olivo, who set up Strohlein’s second goal with the corner kick.
“I didn’t have to do much,” Strohlein said. “Mark played a great ball – driven and with a lot of pace. All I had to do was make contact.”
Even though Haddonfield went into the half trailing 2-0, Nixon told his players they were still in the game, and he was optimistic the Bulldawgs would make a run in the second half.
However, their hopes were all but dashed when Jayson Vandermark scored on an assist from Shane McLaughlin to make it 3-0.
The Bulldawgs got on the board late in the game when Max Green was credited with a goal that found its way into the net after a goal-mouth scramble off a corner kick.
But Strohlein had one more goal in him and he delivered it from about 20 yards on a direct kick in the game’s waning moments.
S.J. Group 2 Championship
Haddonfield 0 1-1
Delran 2 2-4
Goals: D-John Strohelin 3, Jayson Vandermark, H-Max Green. Goalies, Berkant Haliloglu and Phillipe Avles, D (6 saves), Finn Miller, H (5 saves).