By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Middle Township High School girls soccer coach Mike Hickman scouted nationally ranked Ocean City Saturday when the Raiders beat Wildwood Catholic, 9-0.
“I’ve been involved in soccer for 21 years now and they’re one of the most talented teams — high school or club — I’ve seen,” Hickman said. “We’re so young, so I knew it was going to be a challenge. But we had to try to do something to give us a shot.”
That something worked.
Playing deep and compact throughout, Middle held Ocean City — ranked fifth in the state and among the top 25 teams in the nation by TopDrawerSoccer.com — scoreless for 100 minutes of soccer as the teams played through regulation and two periods of extra time to a 0-0 draw Tuesday afternoon.
“We just packed it in and played defense and took our shot when we got it,” Hickman said. “We hit C.C (DiMaruo) on the counter(attack) a couple times. We had three good chances. But we mostly just packed it in and played defense. They are a very, very good team. You have to try to do something, obviously, to compete.”
Middle goalkeeper Brynn Bock was credited with 27 saves against a Raider team that, in addition to its nine tallies in its season opener, scored 114 goals in 26 games en route to a state Group III title in 2019.
Center back Izzy Aftanis was a stalwart defensively, keeping the back line organized and poised.
“Izzy held down that back line for us. We go (defensively) as she goes,” Hickman said. “And obviously Brynn was big, with 27 saves.”
Aftanis, a senior, did not play as a junior after undergoing knee surgery in May 2019 following a lacrosse injury.
“It felt really good, definitely worth waiting a whole year to come back for something like this,” Aftanis said. “You get butterflies before a game against a team like Ocean City. They’re nationally ranked, they have a lot of good players and they’re very technically sound. But we just had to step back and pull apart what we know and what we do best, play together and execute what we needed to get done.
“Everyone on the team worked really hard. There was a lot of joy we felt to be able to tie a team like them, especially after their state championship last year. It felt really, really great.”
Bock never flinched despite continuous pressure from the Raiders.
“It was tiring but the back line did an amazing job keeping everything contained and Coach Hickman’s strategies were so good. His game plan was amazing,” Bock said.
Middle (0-1-1) is winless through its first two games. The Lady Panthers lost, 2-1, to a Millville team that won 16 games last season in their opener. The record is deceiving considering the competition.
“We competed with Millville and they’re one of the best around, too,” Hickman said. “And then we knew Ocean City was going to be real tough. The kids, they’re starting to get a little bit of encouragement. They feel like they can compete.
“To start with a Group IV team that went 16-3-1 last year and then to play a nationally ranked team and come out of it with a one-goal loss and a tie, the kids are starting to buy in and believe in themselves.”