Martinho’s double overtime game-winner in regional final caps unbeaten season for Monroe boys soccer

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The Monroe Township High School boys soccer team celebrates winning the Central East F, Group 4 Middlesex/Union regional championship with a 3-2 victory over Elizabeth on Nov. 21 in Monroe. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Monroe Township High School boys soccer player Josh Cruz dribbles the ball up the sideline during the team's regional championship game against Elizabeth on Nov. 21 in Monroe. Cruz scored a goal in the team's 3-2 victory over Elizabeth.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Monroe Township High School boys soccer player Zachary Martinho kicks the ball into the box during the team's regional championship game against Elizabeth on Nov. 21 in Monroe. Martinho scored the game-winning goal in double overtime to help Monroe defeat Elizabeth 3-2. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Monroe Township High School boys soccer player Davide Maioriello passes the ball to a teammate during the team's regional championship game against Elizabeth on Nov. 21 in Monroe. Monroe finishes the season with a record of 14-0-1.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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The Monroe Township High School boys soccer team celebrates winning the Central East F, Group 4 Middlesex/Union regional championship with a 3-2 victory over Elizabeth on Nov. 21 in Monroe. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Monroe Township High School boys soccer player Josh Cruz dribbles the ball up the sideline during the team's regional championship game against Elizabeth on Nov. 21 in Monroe. Cruz scored a goal in the team's 3-2 victory over Elizabeth.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Monroe Township High School boys soccer player Zachary Martinho kicks the ball into the box during the team's regional championship game against Elizabeth on Nov. 21 in Monroe. Martinho scored the game-winning goal in double overtime to help Monroe defeat Elizabeth 3-2. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Monroe Township High School boys soccer player Davide Maioriello passes the ball to a teammate during the team's regional championship game against Elizabeth on Nov. 21 in Monroe. Monroe finishes the season with a record of 14-0-1.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

MONROE – Scoring the game-winning goal is a moment Zachary Martinho has always dreamed of.

The senior forward on the Monroe Township High School boys soccer team got the opportunity to live the moment that he has always dreamed of when the Falcons squared off against Elizabeth High School on Nov. 21 in the Central East F, Group 4 Middlesex/Union regional final.

As his family and classmates watched from the stands at Hugh P. Walsh Field, Martinho capped an unbeaten season for the Falcons by knocking home the game-winning goal with 2:03 left in the second overtime period to propel Monroe to a regional title with a 3-2 victory over Elizabeth.

“It’s something you always strive for and it has become a reality for me,” Martinho said on his game-winning goal.

“It’s all surreal. It’s a moment that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. It’s something I’m going to tell my kids someday. It’s awesome.”

Monroe’s regional championship is its first statewide title since winning the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 4 championship in 2012. The Falcons captured the Greater Middlesex Conference title back in 2017.

Always believing that his squad had the ability to have a special season this fall, Monroe Coach Steven MacKenzie was happy to see the hard work and dedication his players put in on and off the field this season culminate with winning a championship.

“This was a fitting way to end it after everything these guys have done throughout the season,” MacKenzie said. “The way they attacked this season and attacked each day, I had a feeling we could do something special. We’re fortunate to be here and live in this moment. They deserve it.”

MacKenzie said that he learned a lot while coaching during the coronavirus pandemic and credited his players for taking things in stride everyday and following all the rules.

“These guys fought everyday and every time they stepped across the lines, they played the game like it was their last,” MacKenzie said. “They played the game the way it should be played. We prepared ourselves for this moment. They deserve everything they get.”

It was a battle for Monroe to win the regional title.

Right off the bat, the Falcons saw themselves in a 1-0 hole as Jordy Zuniga scored the game’s first goal for Elizabeth in the fourth minute of the contest.

Monroe got a golden opportunity to tie the contest with 16:23 left to play in the first half on a penalty kick and capitalized on it.

Senior Tabi Essa scored his ninth goal of the season on his second-chance shot on net to tie the game at 1-1 and get Monroe back in the game.

The Falcons once again got a penalty kick opportunity later on during the 68th minute off a hand ball by Elizabeth in the box.

Junior Josh Cruz this time took the penalty kick for Monroe and just like Essa, Cruz was able to find the back of the net.

The junior slapped in his ninth goal of the season and third goal in the last two games to give Monroe a 2-1 lead.

“When I take penalty kicks, I don’t like looking at the goalie and giving him any chance to know where I’m going,” Cruz said. “I kept my composure. I kept looking at the ball. About half-way through, I looked at the corner and slid it in and the (goalie) went the wrong way.”

Cruz finished his junior campaign with a team-high 14 assists.

Monroe looked to be on its way to a regional title as it continued to lead by one with under three minutes to go in regulation, but Elizabeth didn’t go away quietly.

Steven Zuniga struck for Elizabeth with 2:03 left to play to tie the game and ultimately force overtime.

Both squads didn’t flinch in the first overtime period, signaling a second 10-minute period before penalty kicks would have to be used to determine a winner.

Martinho made sure that wasn’t the case.

Seeing the ball bounce to him in the box, the senior dribbled to his left and took a rip at the goal with his left foot.

Thinking at first that he overhit the ball and that it was going to sail over the crossbar, Martinho instead saw his shot find the top-right corner of the net for the game-winner to help Monroe capture the regional title.

“I was confident in my abilities to slide it right into the corner,” Martinho said. “We fought to death of it. We knew this was our last game and we gave it everything we got. This really means a lot to us. This (win) is huge for the program and puts us in the history books.”

Martinho finishes the season with three goals and eight assists.

Senior goalkeeper Nikhil Tangella recorded six saves in net for Monroe in the victory.

Fellow senior teammate Christian Bernal tallied a team-high 19 goals this season for the Falcons and had nine assists.

Being a four-year starter for Monroe, Bernal has been waiting to hoist a state championship since his freshman year and couldn’t have been more ecstatic to help bring home a championship for the program in his last season as a Falcon.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Bernal said. “From the get-go we knew this could be a state championship team with the chemistry we had with each other. With determination and hard work, you can make anything happen. There’ve been multiple times where our season could’ve been at stake because of the pandemic, but we kept on working hard and here we are now as state champions.”

Monroe finishes its unbeaten season with a record of 14-0-1.