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Spilsbury sends Manalapan to Shore Conference Tournament semis with overtime game-winner

The 2021 campaign has been a great ride thus far for the Manalapan High School girls soccer team and it got even better on Oct. 22 when the Braves clinched a spot in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals.

Locked in a scoreless tie with Lacey High School heading into overtime of an conference tournament quarterfinal match, the magic that helped the Braves win 12 straight matches continued thanks to the right foot of sophomore Sydney Spilsbury.

With a “golden goal” rule in play, the first team to score in the 10-minute overtime period would win.

With just under two minutes played in overtime, Spilsbury became the hero of the day when she collected a loose ball near midfield and decided to take a chance with Lacey’s goalkeeper off her line.

The unexpected chance paid off when Spilsbury’s shot found its target and the Braves won 1-0 to reach the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2010.

“It feels great,” Spilsbury said. “I honestly just went for it. I wasn’t even expecting it to go in. It went in. It feels really great.”

The Braves will be playing in their third conference tournament semifinal in 26 years. Coach Rick Garretson has been at the helm for all of those appearances and is hoping the third time will be the charm as his squad tries to reach its first Shore Conference Tournament championship game.

“It would be a treat,” Garretson said about reaching the title game. “This is such a great team to work with. There’s not a day that goes by that these players don’t make me smile or laugh about something. To have a group of players like that who work as hard as they do is special.”

Since losing to Freehold Township, 5-0, in the season opener on Sept. 9, the Braves (13-1) have won 13 straight matches and have outscored their opponents 45-2 in that span.

Spilsbury and sophomore Vanessa Sarf have played key roles in the offense. Sarf leads the team with 16 goals. Spilsbury leads the team in assists with nine and has scored 14 goals.

“They are playing at such a high level, which we are very proud of,” Garretson said of Spilsbury and Sarf. “We saw last year they were something special and we knew that as they matured and improved their best years were ahead of them.”

Spilsbury’s 14th goal of 2021 will go down as one of her top high school moments so far, she said after the victory over Lacey. She was not just surprised she scored, but happy as can be to experience the thrill of scoring a game-winning goal in a conference tournament match.

“It feels great,” Spilsbury said. “It’s something you want to experience. It’s really great.”

Senior goalkeeper Sydney Kwartin made four saves against Lacey.

Manalapan will play Freehold Township (15-0-1) in the conference tournament semifinals on Oct. 25 at Barnegat High School in Ocean County with a chance to avenge their only loss of the season.

Having a chance to make program history by reaching their first Shore Conference Tournament title game is something the Braves are determined to accomplish.

“We have been waiting a while for this and we deserve it,” senior captain Lillian Piper said. “It means a lot to us. We want to win something. We haven’t done that in a while.”

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