EAST BRUNSWICK – Scoring chances don’t come around too often in these tight, tight playoff games. So Manalapan’s Vanessa Sarf knows that when you have the chance, you have to finish.
Sarf had two perfect shots on Danielle Butash’s goal and the sixth-seeded Braves topped No. 2 East Brunswick on Tuesday in the NJSIAA Central Group 4 semifinals.
“It’s really important when you’re taking a shot on goal to make sure it’s in the frame,” Sarf said, “because if you’re not, it could be a win or a loss. So, you know, if I have a shot on goal, I have to score.”
She did, and Manalapan (15-3-1) continued her unexpected run to the finals. The spark started shortly after a 2-0 loss to Watchung Hills on Oct. 1. Head coach John Rodgers said they moved Butasch to forward and put Sydney Spilsbury at center midfield.
The move worked for both players with the defense and freshman goalie Layla Shaw. Manalapan has gone 10-1 in its last 11 games with seniors and several freshmen blending together.
On Tuesday, East Brunswick goalie Claudia Wolina was outstanding with eight saves, while Manalopan freshman Laila Shaw made five saves.
Although both teams had chances, Manalapan held a 4-1 edge in corner kicks and outshot the Bears 10-5.
What does that mean
The Braves won their second straight game against a Middlesex County opponent. Manalapan, which lost last season in the Central Group 4 semifinals, beat third-seeded Monroe 1-0 in OT last Saturday in the quarterfinals. They opened the tournament with a 2-0 win over 11th seed Princeton 2-0.
East Brunswick (19-2-1) finished the season in the Central Group 4 semifinals for the second straight year. The Bears were the Greater Middlesex Tournament and Red Division conference champions and had their most wins since 2017.
In the 13th minute, Manalapan lined up for a corner kick. Instead of a shot, Casey Resker found Butash for a short pass on the right side and she fed Sarf, who tapped it in with her right foot about 3 yards out to make it 1-0.
The Braves’ second goal came when Butas grabbed the ball at midfield and passed to Resker, who fired a shot to the right of the East Brunswick keeper to make it 35:26 left in the game.
A game of balls
Manalopan’s defense of Julia DiStefano, Brooke-Lynn Galimidi, Ryan Lee and Casey Resker made it harder for East Brunswick to go on runs.
They said it
Sarf said: “We really worked hard to get here. We knew we wanted to get to the final. We knew we had to play great today, and we did.”
John Rogers, a former Manalapan player who was the JV coach at Rumson-Fair Haven last year, said, “Things are really starting to click for us. We had a grueling season. Lots of top competition in the Shore Conference. We’ve been working hard since August and in the middle of the season we just started to come together. Started to change some things. Everything just started clicking and we really just took off. … We have a really good mix of senior management and freshman talent. The junior class is so deep.”
East Brunswick coach Kevin Brady said, “It’s been a fantastic season. We’ve had a lot of turnover over the last two seasons. We’ve got a lot of new faces that we’ve been asking to do a lot of very difficult things since the beginning of August, basically until now. I couldn’t be more proud of how they handled every challenge. The harder it got, the more they lifted not only themselves, but each other throughout the season. This is what allows you to get to games like this.
Brady on Tuesday’s game: “Manalapan was great. We had a lot of problems with their speed. I thought we had some chances against the run of play, if we can pull one back at a time we can change the game. But they were very well organized.”
Brady on the team that rallied to beat Old Bridge 2-1 in OT in the quarter-finals: “They certainly had more of a game, but I’m proud of the fact that we kept fighting from start to finish, trying to find a tie at first a goal and then a goal that would have put us back in it, but we just couldn’t do it today.”
Manalapan will face top-seeded Freehold Township in Saturday’s final. Freehold Township went 4-0 on Sept. 29 against the Braves.