Central Regional’s Golden Eagles Were A Championship “famILY”

The Central Regional High School girls soccer team revels in its slogan at the Golden Eagles' Homecoming Parade. (Photo courtesy Marykate Sullivan)

  BERKELEY – It’s perhaps the ultimate slogan for a team.

  The Central Regional High School girls soccer team lived by the word “famILY” as in Forget About Me, I Love You. Senior defender Lindsay Smith, one of the Golden Eagles’ captains, brought the saying back with her from a leadership conference she attended during her junior year.

  “Lindsay heard other coaches talking about it and she felt it was exactly what we needed,” Central head coach Marykate Sullivan said. “Its purpose is to remind the players that we are playing for something bigger than ourselves. It’s about embracing your role and doing whatever is needed because you love the girl standing beside you.”

  The Golden Eagles stood taller than most opponents.

  There was a 19-2 overall record. It tied the previous program record for wins set in 2013. There was a 14-match winning streak in which the Golden Eagles outscored opponents 50-14 en route to the best start in program history. There was a Shore Conference Class A South record of 7-0 for first place – the first Class A South title in program history. And there was an NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship – the first sectional crown in program history. Central fielded its first team in 1977.

  “I think the team was so successful because it was led by a group of 12 incredible seniors who played together for the last four years,” Sullivan said. “These girls have formed a special connection and did a great job of setting the expectations and leading the underclassmen. This team consisted of a bunch of girls who wanted to win. They worked hard every single day in practice, challenged each other and were always looking for ways to improve.”

  The Golden Eagles netted 61 goals on the season.

  Senior midfielder Emma Harmon erupted for 18 goals and 12 assists to lead the attack.

  Arianna Chidiac, a senior forward, put home a career-high 13 goals and added 10 assists. She scored off an assist from Harmon with 25 seconds left in regulation for a 1-0 win over Kingsway (16-3-3, 7-0-1) in the South Jersey Group IV championship match at Central.

  Senior midfielder Samantha Versnel put home a career-high seven goals and dished out nine assists.

  Central’s offensive players were far from strangers.

Central head coach Marykate Sullivan guides Sam Versnel of the Golden Eagles. (Photo courtesy Jason Kangas)

  “They have been playing together for the last couple of years so they formed a very strong connection,” Sullivan said. “Harmon and Sam have been playing side by side and work so well off each other. Arianna knows exactly which runs to make and when her midfielders are going to get her the ball. We have a very distinct style of play, which helped us be successful. We were having success and winning games as a team so there was no reason to be experiencing anything else but happiness.”

  Senior stopper Laura Woermer netted five goals.

  “She has many strengths on the soccer field,” Sullivan said, “but her overall number one strength is her ability to win balls out of the air.”

  Central allowed 21 goals. Its backline consisted of sophomore sweeper Emma Christensen, Woermer, left back Lindsay Smith and sophomore right back Nicole Kangas.

  “Emma’s strong points are her speed and her ability to read the game, which is why we kept her at sweeper,” Sullivan said. “The strong points of Lindsay and Nicole are their strength on the ball and their ability to distribute the ball out of the back. This group played so well together because it trusted each other and had a great keeper (senior Erika Kangas) keeping them organized.”

  Three of Central’s four wins in NJSIAA sectional play were by 1-0 scores.

  “Defense was the key to our success in the sectionals,” said Sullivan, whose team fell 5-0 to Central Jersey Group IV champion Freehold Township – the eventual Group IV state title – in the Group IV state semifinals. “Our backline did a great job of holding off our opponents and keeping us in the game. Even though we struggled to find the net offensively, all we needed was one.”

  The defensive unit came up big against Kingsway.

  “The keys to the victory were to keep pressing and hold them on defense,” Sullivan said. “We knew they were great defensively so we had to finish the chances we were given. We felt as if we had the majority of possession and momentum so the goal was coming. We knew if we kept the pressure on we’d be able to find the back of the net. Our backline did an awesome job of limiting the shots Kingsway took and recorded the shutout. I felt like we had possession of the ball for the majority of the time. We just couldn’t find the back of the net.”         

  Joining Smith as the team’s captains were Harmon, Versnel, Erika Kangas and Chidiac. They were named by their teammates in August.

  “Typically,” Sullivan said, “we only have three captains, but us coaches felt that all five players brought something different and were all capable of being leaders on this team. All five were three-year varsity players.”

  Second-seeded Central opened sectional play with a 1-0 win over No. 15 Lenape in double overtime.

  “We were not ready for this game,” Sullivan said. “We did not play our best and truthfully did not deserve to make it past the first round with this performance. However, we survived and advanced so we learned from it and put it behind us.”

  The Golden Eagles bested No. 7 Washington Township 5-1 in the quarterfinals and ousted No. 6 Cherokee 1-0 in the semifinals before downing No. 4 Kingsway.

  “We played our best soccer and dominated from start to finish against Washington,” Sullivan said. “The game against Cherokee was physical and a great battle by both teams.” 

  Sullivan said the sectional title was super meaningful.

Central Regional captains Emma Harmon, Sam Versnel, Erika Kangas, Lindsay Smith and Arianna Chidiac celebrate the Golden Eagles’ NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship. (Photo courtesy Jason Kangas)

  “It was extra special because I got to do it with the first team I ever coached at Central,” she said. “I told this group of seniors when they were freshmen that if they all stick together they’d be able to accomplish something really special during their senior year. Being able to move up with them and accomplish it together is something I will never forget.”

  A former Toms River East and The College of New Jersey player, Sullivan expected big things from the Golden Eagles. And why not? After all, the Golden Eagles returned nine starters in Harmon, Versnel, Chidiac, Erika Kangas, Bozinis, Smith, Makenna Leszcyznski, Riley Billhimer and Christensen from last season’s 13-5-1 team.

  “I am not one bit surprised at our success,” said Sullivan, Central’s second-year head coach. “I coached this group when they were seniors on our freshman team. Nobody was pulled up to either the varsity or the junior varsity team so the strong connection between them began forming four years ago. We were 9-0 as freshmen and after the last game of the season.

  “I remember telling them that if they stick together and don’t let any of the high school drama come between them they’d have the opportunity to do something really special during their senior year. Four years later, they are South Jersey Group IV champs and Class A South champs and they will go down as one of the best teams to go through Central Regional.”

  The Golden Eagles had things pretty much their way in Class A South, outscoring opponents 22-6 as they won their fourth division crown in program history. Central won Class B South in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The third-seeded Golden Eagles fell 1-0 to eighth-seeded Middletown South in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals.

  “There was a lot of regrouping that had to be done after our first loss of the season,” Sullivan said. “I wasn’t sure how we were going to respond, but our first practice was absolutely terrible. The girls all looked like they didn’t want to be here and there was zero effort. They ran a lot and I told them they had two choices – they can either put their heads down and quit or they can pick each other up and go win a state title. The choice was theirs. Exactly one week after our loss was our first state tournament game. We played one game in between that time and it was our Senior Night game which we won 2-0 over Colts Neck.”                            

  The varsity assistant coach was Carly Oris. The junior varsity coach was Olivia Flohs.

  “Coach Oris helped us do a lot of scouting and helped come up with specific game plans,” Sullivan said. “She brought a lot of positive energy with her to every single practice. Both of us played at TCNJ under (coach) Joe Russo so we have very similar coaching styles and were usually on the same page. Coach Flohs did a great job with our junior varsity team. Once her season was over, she came up to the varsity to assist myself and coach Oris.”        

  Central also received contributions from senior midfielder Cailey Bozinis, senior defender Ellie Ytreboe, senior defender Leszczynski, senior forward Gabby Hanson, junior midfielder Billhimer, junior midfielder Ava Schmidhauser, sophomore defender Hailey Monprode, freshman midfielder Leah DiCillo, senior midfielder Gracie Lowe, senior midfielder Gabby Vassallo and junior forward Shelby Parks.

  “Not only did this team change my life, it also changed this program forever. It put Central soccer back on the map and set the standard moving forward. Not only did it make history, but it is leaving behind a legacy that will take the next generation of Golden Eagles to the next level.”