Eyes on the Prize: Seneca’s boys soccer ready for postseason run

For the first time in program history, the Golden Eagles have scored a clean sweep over their district rivals. Up next: A do-over with the Group 3 playoff field.

Seneca’s Owens Bonilla-Hernandez (4) celebrates with (left to right) Zach Miller, Justin Patton, and Justin Curtis after scoring a goal against Camden Catholic. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

Sam Maira likes to use mantras to keep his team going through the year, and he has no shortage of favorite ones to use on the whiteboard at Seneca High School.

Win the day.

Let’s not wait until it’s over to enjoy the journey.

If you take care of the process, the product takes care of itself.

There’s another, probably more direct one he could add that may help to explain how the Golden Eagles boys soccer team is having what’s arguably in place to be the best year in program history: Go hard or go home.

Five weeks into the 2018 season (as of Oct. 9), Seneca was one of the few unbeaten teams remaining in New Jersey. The Golden Eagles cruised to a 7–0 win at Camden Catholic on the second Tuesday of October to improve to 11–0–2 with the state playoffs less than a month away.

“The combination of going after each other in practice and playing quality opponents just made us stronger,” Maira explained.

But how exactly did the Golden Eagles morph into one of the top teams in South Jersey, while playing in the highly competitive Olympic Conference?

A first-round loss in the state playoffs a year ago, when they happened to come out “flat” against Lacey Township, dropping a 1–0 loss and seeing their season come to an end, despite high expectations when they went unbeaten in seven of their final nine regular season games.

“That stung a lot of us,” said senior midfielder Eric Pierre. “It was a hard pill to swallow. But luckily there were a lot of us that had another year, so we’re ready to do what we couldn’t do last year, make a little run.”

Or perhaps even a big run.

Seneca boys soccer coach Sam Maira addresses his team after a 7–0 win over Camden Catholic, which made the Golden Eagles 11–0–2 in the first five weeks of the 2018 season. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

Seneca, a school that’s only fielded a varsity team since 2004, has reached the South Jersey semifinals, but never advanced further. They’ve often played in the shadows of their Indian school rivals, as the district’s new kid on the block.

Thanks to a yearlong motivation to make up for an early playoff exit last year, Seneca is the best team in its competitive district this season, beating Shawnee, Lenape, and Cherokee in the same year for the first time in program history.

The clean sweep began on the first day of school last month.

“We’d never beaten (Shawnee) before as a program,” senior defender Mitchell Tippin said.

“Going into that game,” fellow senior defender Justin Patton said, “the locker room was just as hype as can be. Maybe a little too hype because we came out a little flat, emotions going. But once we settled down and got the flow of the game, we took control and did what we needed to do.”

Seneca’s Owens Bonilla-Hernandez gets ready to head a ball off a corner kick with teammates Jonathan Defrank (2), Mark Palladino (13), Sam McHugh (16), and Zachary Brida (24) watching the play. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

Seneca trailed 1–0 at halftime and saw the deficit grow to 2–0 before scoring three unanswered goals in a stretch of just more than three minutes.

“After that Shawnee game,” Tippin said, “it’s just the momentum has taken us through the whole season. It’s working hard in practice. We’re like a brotherhood, playing for each other.”

Seneca knows it will play the season’s final few weeks in a different spot than it played the first five weeks. It’s no longer a surprise team, but one with a target on its back.

Maybe that’s OK and even the best way to see if Maira’s team can pass the next test: taking their regular season dominance and molding it into postseason staying power. The Golden Eagles appear to have the right team DNA to make that leap in 2018.

“What’s great about them is they are so competitive, and in a good way,” Maira said. “They get after each other. We never have a flat practice. Even when I want to hold back a little bit and say, ‘Hey, it’s a pregame practice,’ they’re going at each other, which is awesome. But at the end of the day it’s all love for each other.”

Seneca goalkeeper Jonah Mikuslski (0) and Justin Patton (6) congratulate Thomas Fox after he exits the game in the second half against Camden Catholic. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)