EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — In the opening half of Egg Harbor Township's first-round state playoff game against ACIT on Monday, the Eagles couldn't find their mojo offensively. At halftime, head coach Pete Lambert had a message for his players, particularly the seniors — have some fun out there.
The eighth-seeded Eagles had plenty of fun in the second half, notching two goals to dispatch the No. 9 RedHawks, 2-0, and in the process making Lambert the school's winningest boys soccer head coach. The win was the 115th of Lambert's 11-year career as he surpassed former coach Mike Mousaw on the Eagles' all-time victories list.
"These boys, we told them at halftime, just have fun. We're unbeaten in our last 10 games because we're having fun," Lambert said. "We had great energy on the bench, guys coming on the field with energy. They were playing somewhat casually with no pressure on them, and they were having fun. It was a great second half. That was fun to watch."
The Eagles (14-4-2) started having fun early in the second half when Ahmad Brock was taken down in the box and received a penalty kick, which E.J. Martin converted — albeit not the way he had planned. ACIT keeper Luke Olley guessed left and dove that way while Martin's kick went almost straight down the middle to give EHT a 1-0 lead. The Eagles square off against top-seeded Washington Township, a 2-0 winner over No. 16 Millville, on Thursday in the South Jersey Group 4 quarterfinals.
"I was actually trying to go bottom left and it still happened to go in, so I'll take it," Martin said.
Later in the half, senior midfielder Nicholas Talvacchio fed Brock, a sophomore, with a nifty through ball from about 20 yards out and Brock chased it down, beating Olley to the spot and tapping one home for an insurance goal that pushed the lead to 2-0.
"E.J. won the header to me and I saw Ahmad on the side and I knew he was going to make a diagonal run, so I just had to look that way, fake the defense and send it through, and he finished it off," Talvacchio said.
"At halftime, what we talked about was maintaining possession but being more creative, more dangerous on the ball and to try to get the ball wide of their outside backs. We were able to maintain possession and that allowed things to open up a bit," Lambert said. "Ahmad is dangerous up top and we just told him to run, just run people down and be creative. He got into the box and got taken down, so to go up 1-nil on a PK — and then a great ball later in the game from Nicky, he had a great game. When he's playing like that, he's dangerous. He knows where guys should be and where they are. He made a couple moves, and knowing where Ahmad would be, he played it through and Ahmad is really starting to finish. He has four goals in our last three games, and we needed that one. That insurance goal was big."
The big story, aside from the win over the RedHawks (13-7-1), was Lambert setting the school mark, particularly with a team that has made such a remarkable turnaround from last year's sub-par record.
"It feels good, especially after last year how we didn't make the playoffs, so we're hoping we can make a run this year," Talvacchio said. "In the past nine years we've been unbeaten and have been playing really well, so we were kind of surprised the first half was slow. But in the second half we kind of kicked it up and got things going."
"This year, we just decided to kick it into a new gear, especially after last year when we had five wins. This year actually going positive means a lot," added Martin, a junior. "In the first half we had momentum, we had possession, we were going into the corner, getting crosses and shots, we just didn't have the end effect. But once the second half came around it was a whole different game."
Lambert, in true head coaching fashion, gave all the credit to his players and assistant coaches, Dennis Heenan and Phil Maturi.
"It's been a great ride with coach Heenan by my side the whole time and now coach Maturi, that's honestly something I wasn't aware of. I knew it was possible this year, but until it actually happened, after the game that was pretty cool having the fans come over. I really appreciate having their support. I told the boys that none of this is possible without their energy and effort. We have 14 wins this year and that's a great effort. It's all due to their commitment and effort. They make my job a little bit easier, when you have good kids like that who are coachable and willing to put in the work. It's exciting, 115 wins, that's something I'll remember for awhile. We build a program where we want to compete every game, and the wins will come if the boys are willing to work and put in the effort. This group isn't done yet, we're going to go back to Washington Township and that's a team it feels like we play every year. They are coming off a loss to St. Augustine Prep in the Coaches Tournament final, so they are going to be hungry," he said. "We've been fortunate to have good club teams the boys play for and a lot of them play all year. They come in with a good attitude, they are fit, they're technical, and they buy in to our system. They bought in to what we're preaching and what we're working on. I have 27 kids on the team this year and that's kind of unheard of, to have that many kids, but they are good, solid, coachable kids who want to be part of something special whether they play every minute or don't play at all. We're a family here and we preach that bond. The kids are doing it with their play and their attitude on and off the field."
The Eagles players, however, were quick to give their skipper praise.
"For me, he's meant a lot," Talvacchio said. "I've been starting since sophomore year and he's gotten the most out of me and I really appreciate him as a coach."
Added Martin, "He's a great all-around coach, funny off the field, he's basically like your second dad. He plays around with all our jokes, he's just great."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays