High-flying Essex CC taking its best shot at a national title Beating nemesis Mercer lifts 2nd-ranked Knights

October 13, 1998|By Mark Hoeflich | Mark Hoeflich,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

The momentum is building, and the men's soccer team at Essex Community College is starting to enjoy itself.

The Knights, ranked No. 2 among Division I junior colleges by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, have breezed to 11 wins in 12 games, leaving opponents in awe by outscoring them, 55-9, with four shutouts. Along the way, there was a three-week stop at No. 1.

In some respects, this is not unusual for Essex. It's just that this season is moving along to a different hum.

For starters, Essex has its most deeply talented and well-conditioned group in Tom Wall's five years as coach. And the Knights know they are now better equipped to make a run at the national championship.

A 2-1 win over perennial power and then-No. 2 Mercer, N.J., in the third game of the season sparked the Knights' 1998 campaign. The win not only erased doubts left by last season's nine-goal loss to Mercer in the NJCAA tournament play-in game, but also came as a preview for all interested parties.

"People know we're there. They just remember we fell off a bit in 1996 and didn't show as much last season," said Wall, whose team jumped seven spots to No. 1 with the victory over Mercer. "The talk before this season was Mercer was the team we had to beat."

But as much as defeating Mercer showed about the Knights' resolve, the season quickly turned into a lesson in poise. On Oct. 2, Essex began its most telling stretch -- eight games in 17 days -- with a double-overtime loss to Montgomery-Rockville, the top-ranked team in Division III JuCo, losing its No. 1 ranking and unbeaten record.

"Sometimes a loss brings you back to Earth," Wall said. "Now we know we have to focus more, but we're still on track and won't let up on what we're trying to do."

Not as long as forward Giuliano Celenza is around. A first-team All-JuCo selection a year ago, Celenza has helped Essex in many ways. His 39 points (16 goals, seven assists) lead the team, and the presence he commands from opposing defenses has ignited the offense.

With Celenza (Curley) often drawing double-teams, Mike Brown (Patapsco) and Joe Capone (Perry Hall) have combined for 11 goals and 14 assists and added dash to an offense averaging nearly 25 shots.

"The numbers are not that important to me. I'd rather see Brown or Capone get the points," Celenza said. "Together the three of us are putting away the goals."

Said Capone: "The way Giuliano is marked, it often leaves the rest of us open a lot. And I've been able to finish a couple of balls myself."

The noticeable transformation has come on defense. Coming into this season, Wall was most upset by how badly his backfield was beaten in last year's play-in game. But Essex has righted itself with the addition of Mike Schaffer (Calvert Hall) and Evan Nastalski (Perry Hall), both of whom bring a more physical style of play.

Add in the superb play of goalkeepers Kyle Zimmer, who at 6 feet 4 is an imposing presence, and Phil Manna, and the Knights' defense is allowing on average only nine shots.

"We are a little more physical, and we do have more size in the back than we did last year," said fullback Nastalski. "With three of our defenders being 6 feet 2 or taller, we win a lot of balls out of the air."

Also working in the Knights' favor is the play of their bench. Wall has been able to rotate several players every 10 to 15 minutes without any drop-off in production.

Still, Essex doesn't want to dig too deep. But there is a sense that these Knights have only shown a glimpse of their potential.

"With a team like this, who knows when you'll get a chance to play with guys like this again especially Celenza," Capone said.

Added Wall: "Now that we've felt what it's like to be on the losing side of a big game, we don't won't to be on that side again."

Pub Date: 10/13/98

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