By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Less than two weeks ago, the players on the Middle Township High School boys soccer team experienced the euphoria of winning a game in penalty kicks.
On Monday, they experienced the agony.
Middle was knocked out of the South Jersey Group II Tournament in the opening round when it fell, 5-4 in sudden-death penalty kicks, to Manchester Township after a wild 4-4 draw at the Boyd Street Field.
Middle had won a South Jersey Coaches Tournament game over Shawnee through penalty kicks on Oct. 22.
“Penalties — what can you say?” Middle coach Scott Kurkowski said. “We’ve been on the other side of it so we know how it can work. Most times it comes down to, who can tuck it away, who can step up and make a big save. We do practice them, so we were ready, but unfortunately it just didn’t go our way.”
Middle, the sixth seed in the tournament, suffered the loss despite twice coming back from one-goal deficits to take leads.
Steve Berrodin gave Middle a 4-3 lead with nine minutes to go when he calmly slotted the ball into an empty goal from a sharp angle after moving the ball around the Manchester goalkeeper.
But two minutes later, Manchester’s Muberaq Aderoga blasted a shot inside the left post to equalize, sending the game to extra time.
Both teams had a couple half chances to score in the two extra time periods but couldn’t covert, setting the stage for penalty kicks.
The teams each made four of their first five kicks, taking the contest to sudden-death penalty kicks. After Manchester converted, its goalkeeper made a save on the next Middle kick to clinch the victory.
Middle will look back and rue the chances it didn’t covert in the first half. After falling behind 1-0 on a fluke goal only a few minutes in, Middle got a fluke goal of its own when Berrodin’s cross floated toward goal and was tipped off the bottom of the crossbar by the Manchester goalkeeper and into goal.
Austin Carr then gave Middle the lead when he got a touch on his twin brother Tommy’s long direct kick and sent it into goal.
Middle went on to dominate most of the rest of the first half but couldn’t find the goal.
“We have to put one or two of those chances (in the first half) away,” Kurkowski said. “Unfortunately we paid the price for it today.”
Eleventh-seeded Manchester (9-11-1) scored twice to take the lead in the second half, only to see Berrodin tie the game when his cross was knocked into goal by a Manchester defender. Berrodin was credited with the goal, since the NJSIAA does not recognize own goals.
Middle couldn’t hold the lead after Berrodin’s second tally of the second half and the Panthers endured their cruel fate in penalties.
Middle was hurt by injuries to two of its midfielders. Austin Carr went out late in the first half after a scary collison on a ball in the air and Will Casterline was forced to the sidelines in the second half due to a leg injury.
Middle, the Cape-Atlantic United Conference champion, finished its season at 14-3-4.
“It’s a tough way to end, for sure,” Kurkowski said. “But looking at the big picture, it says something about this group that there are a lot more smiles right now than tears. They’ve come such a long way this year and they’ve experienced some awesome moments. The success they’ve had this year is more than my words could describe. The amount of fun they’ve had this year really means a lot to me.”