By Rich Fisher | Correspondent
It’s safe to say Coach Tom Mulligan expects a lot from the players in his Christian Brothers Academy soccer program, no matter their experience level.
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The Colts graduated 13 seniors, 10 starters and five Division I players from last year’s New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association Non-Public A state championship team.
So, what did Mulligan do?
“I probably put the most demanding schedule in the school’s soccer history in front of this year’s team,” the second-year head coach said.
And how’s that working out?
Pretty good, in fact, as CBA carried an 11-1 record with nine shutouts into its Oct. 4 game with Colts Neck. Seven of the first 12 games were on the road and one of the home games was against St. Benedict Prep of the Archdiocese of Newark, the No. 1 team in the country.
The obvious question is, what was the coach thinking?
“I think the kids in our program moving forward deserve to play the best competition that we could possibly compete against,” he said. “It’s not about getting results or trying to build a record, it’s about just performing against competition. I think our kids rise to the level and they enjoy it. That’s one of the reasons I hope they came to CBA, to play against maybe a national schedule or a regional schedule. I want to make it a little bit special for them.”
He could have made it brutal for a team that returned just one starter, but the Colts have lived up to Mulligan’s confidence in them.
“I knew we lacked experience coming back, but we played a lot in the summer time,” he said. “We focused primarily on the defensive half of the field because I thought that would give us the best advantage to stay competitive with our schedule.”
The philosophy has worked out nicely. Six of CBA’s wins were 2-0 and two more were 1-0, so defending well definitely came into play. The Colts have won four one-goal wins, and the only match in which they allowed more than two goals was a 4-2 loss to St. Benedict. CBA showed its mettle in that one, as it was tied at 2 until the nation’s premiere program scored twice in the final minute.
“We played with them for 79 minutes, so we’re close,” Mulligan said. “They’re a very talented team and have a totally different dynamic in their team than we have. But just to be able to compete with them and to hopefully build a relationship with a program like that makes it more interesting and more fun for our kids.”
The young Colts have been led by their lone returning starter, central defender John Askin. The senior captain has teamed with new goalie Shane Keenan to anchor the defense. Keenan is a senior in his first year of high school competition after playing club soccer for PDA and Cedar Stars.
“John Askin has been our primary leader,” Mulligan said. “We have a number of shutouts due in part to his leadership in the back, as well as the contribution of Shane Keenan. Shane is a Division 1 level goalie, he’s a special kid. The combination between the two of them and the focus on the defensive half of the ball has kept us in a lot of very close games that we’ve been able to squeak out.
“Shane decided to play with his classmates and enjoy himself in his senior year of high school. It’s an opportunity I don’t think he regrets one bit. I think he relishes it, and the kids on the team have really been receptive and really enjoyed having him behind them.”
Rounding out the back are senior Kevin Brennan and juniors Liam Mulvey and Jack Hempstead. Mulligan has gotten “pleasantly surprising contributions” from junior midfielders Dominic Bellomo and Joe Lozowski.
“Dominic wins a lot of balls and can also finish; he’s got a lot of key goals and assists, as well,” Mulligan said. “Joe Lozowski brings some varsity experience from his sophomore year to his junior year. He contributed last year with the group off the bench, now he’s a primary player for us and he’s had a very good year in the midfield.”
Bellomo leads the team with six goals, while Lozowski and Charlie Daly have four apiece. Luke Pascarella has a team-leading four assists, followed by Hempstead and Askin with three each. Nine different players have goals and 13 different players have assists as Mulligan plays up to 16 players a game.
“We’re doing it all by committee,” the coach said. “Because of the number of games and the short amount of time the kids have to recover from them; just keeping them healthy and focused for each match and having them progress forward one game at a time is really a challenge.”
Mulligan feels that every player has contributed in some manner during nearly every win, and noted that the games have been so close that he has been unable to give some reserves as much time as he would like. He cannot point to one key win as igniting the confidence, but feels it has been increasing as the season moves along.
“I’ve been telling them since early in the preseason could be every bit as good as any other team in the history of this school,” Mulligan said. “I’m not sure they believe me. And I’ve been continually reminding them of that, that ‘You are as good as any team we’ve ever had.’ I think with each little victory and each accomplishment, that confidence continues to grow.”
After one month, it has grown into one of the best records in the state.