EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Championship moments can define a player, and it’s so difficult for any athlete — particularly at the high school level — to rise to the occasion when his team needs him the most and deliver in the clutch. There’s a reason Oakcrest senior striker Gabe Paz wears that royal blue-and-white captain’s arm band. When the Falcons need a big play in a pressure-packed spot, all eyes turn to No. 10.

Paz, who has been one of the best players in the Cape-Atlantic League throughout his career, and perhaps the league’s most dynamic scorer, scored a “golden goal” less than three minutes into overtime on Monday night to lift Oakcrest to a 2-1 victory over St. Augustine Prep — the No. 2 team in the state — in the CAL Tournament championship game at Egg Harbor Township High School. The league started a four-team soccer tournament last year and this is the second straight year the Hermits have come up just short in heartbreaking fashion. Last year, it was Ocean City rallying to beat Prep in the title game.

Paz started the scoring in the 16th minute when he rifled a direct kick from about 25 yards out into the lower right corner of the goal. The final 20 minutes of regulation featured a near-constant onslaught of offensive attacks from the Hermits, who finally got the equalizer when junior midfielder Michael Balestriere knocked in a loose ball off a corner kick from Uchechi Wokocha with just 2:09 remaining. The Falcons, however, went back on the attack early in overtime, and after a foul Shawn McCourt played a ball into the 18, where Paz took over.

“Holy cow is right,” a relieved Joe Seaman, Oakcrest’s head coach, said after a long celebration following the OT goal. “The first half went off just like we had hoped, we possessed and took control. We had a chance to go up 2-0 with a few seconds left but unfortunately hit the post. The first half was our game plan. The second half was OK for the first 20 minutes then we had our starting marking back go down (with injury) and that kind of threw off the rotation. From there we were just trying to hang on. They got one, but it was inevitable. You can’t hang on for 20 minutes against the No. 2 team in the state. But after that, we dug deep for overtime. I talked about the Ocean City game (on Friday) when we were down 2-nil — I said, ‘look, we have 10 minutes of overtime, press hard, go hard.’ We did, and we got the win.

“We stopped pressing in the second half but in overtime we pressed, we were in their face and they didn’t have any easy passes,” he continued. “They turned the ball over and fouled us and that’s the play we won on. The ball at Gabe’s feet inside the 18, he’s going to get that ninety-nine times out of a hundred. What a fantastic player.”

“I saw their tall center back and just got a little body on him, got past him and just finished it. The pressure is there on me, but I have so many great guys on this team backing me up, it’s not just me. We have Mason (Stokes), Nick (Cacopardo), Asembo (Augo) — we have a force up top and our defense is one of the best in the state this year. We have a great goalie, it all just works together. Me and Shaun have been playing together for so long and he’s come such a long way, him and Mikey (O’Brien) both, together it’s tough to get past them,” Paz said. “We’ve worked so hard for this. We knew Prep is obviously such a good team. After they scored we were a little deflated, but we knew we couldn’t come out like that once overtime started. We tried to play a little more defensively because they are a great attacking team, and unfortunately they got that goal in, but I knew in order to win this game we had to keep going.”

St. Augustine Prep’s talented, fast and creative offense was on full display in the second half and the Hermits put all kinds of pressure on the Oakcrest defense. But the unit of McCourt, O’Brien, Ethan Nelson and Juan Gonzales played inspired defense, even as Gonzales went down with an injury halfway through the second half, and keeper Ryan Liberty made at least a dozen saves in the best performance of his career. He even saved a shot by Balestriere from point-blank range with about 18 minutes to go.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played that well. They are a great team and I respect all of them. In the moment, I’m just really focused. I was really, really nervous before this game but this is the best feeling in the world. I’m filled with emotions right now. It’s unreal,” Liberty said. “Our defense played out of this world. They are studs.”

“He’s making a name for himself, and with all the hard work he’s put in it’s finally getting him noticed,” O’Brien said of Liberty. “We’ve been working all year, and coming up against this strong team, me, Shaun, Ryan and our two outside backs, we knew what we were in for, and we performed. They just kept coming at us but we didn’t back down. Unfortunately they got that goal with two minutes left, but we just kept trying to do what we’ve been practicing and the defense just tried to hold them off as long as we could.”

The Hermits (14-3) kept creating chances and had several shots sail just high or wide. After Gonzales went down, Seaman even had to revert to sending Stokes and Paz into the back — whatever it took to try to keep one of the most potent offenses in the state off the board. Prep came in having scoring 72 goals in 16 games.

“Our defense, I’ll put them up against anybody, they are top notch,” Seaman said. “St. Augustine is very creative and moves the ball around so well, and our guys just hung tough, cleared when needed, possessed out of the back. We definitely have four of the best defenders in the state in Shaun, Mike, Ethan and Juan.”

“It was crazy. Me, Mike and Ryan had to hold it down like we’ve been doing all season. We’re a trio, a brotherhood, we have great chemistry. It was pretty tough and I got scared a little bit, but I always trust my team. This is amazing. They are second in the state and we’re not even in the top 20. Everyone sleeps on us,” McCourt said. “We’re trying to break the clean sheet record and we’re pretty close to it. All season we’ve been solid, we don’t fight back there, we’re all together.”

Winning the CAL championship is a huge boost for a program that has had talent the past couple of years but struggled with consistency and being able to win tournament or playoff games.

“Beating a good team like this — people don’t know who we are, but hopefully they do now. We’re Oakcrest soccer. We’re different,” O’Brien said. Added Liberty, “Last year, we were about 10-10 and now we’re 14-1. I’ll never forget this, it’s incredible. (The crowd chanting my name) was amazing, that got me so energetic and pumped up.”

The last time Oakcrest boys soccer won any kind of championship was in 1987 when it won a conference title. Now, the Falcons have won two in the last four days, as a 4-2 win over Ocean City on Friday helped secure the CAL National title.

“The last time we won a trophy for this school was in 1987. We knew this was our last year to try to win something, and to do this feels amazing,” Paz said.

“We just tied the school record in wins with 14, we’re 14-1 right now. In soccer, the last championship we won was in 1987,” Seaman added. “We went to the preseason tournament at Stockton this year and we had T-shirts made and the boys wanted to put ‘1987’ on the back to remember what we’re focusing on and what our goals are. These guys are awesome.”

What’s next: Oakcrest hosts Absegami on Wednesday at 6PM. St. Augustine Prep travels to Vineland on Wednesday at 4PM.

More From WPG Talk Radio 95.5 FM