Full steam ahead: unbeaten Triton eager to add more hardware

Triton boys soccer made history in 2019, collecting the first sectional championship in program history before falling in the Group 3 state semifinals. The senior-laden Mustangs are back: they're the top seed in their playoff bracket this month.

Triton Regional High School soccer coach Bryan Ekstrom talks with his team at halftime. Minutes later, the Mustangs scored four goals in a five minute span to take control of an eventual 7-1 win over town rival Triton. Triton has announced itself as a South Jersey boys soccer power. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Success is like a tub of ice cream. The first time you taste it, you don’t want to put it away. You want more. 

Except with ice cream, if you overindulge you’re not going to feel too great. In sports, the lack of success on the big stage is what leads to an upset stomach.

Triton Regional High School’s boys soccer team got their fill of both things last year. After making history, they wanted more. And they nearly walked away with it, too, coming oh-so-close to advancing to the first state championship in program history.

“Oh man, all year,” senior Tyler Guadagno said. “It was all year. We would always talk about it.” 

Triton’s magical 2019 season ended on a golden goal off a Wall corner kick five minutes into overtime of the Group 3 state semifinal. It was the only goal the Mustangs allowed last postseason.

Although COVID-19 ended Triton’s dream of making up for last year by adding a state championship this year – no state championships in any sports are being contested this fall – the Mustangs haven’t let that disappointment set them back. Instead, they appear to be as hungry as ever.

Last Wednesday, Triton exploded for four goals in a five-minute span early in the second half to beat Black Horse Pike Regional School District rival Highland 7-1. It was Triton’s 10th win in 10 games in 2020.

“I think last year, after winning (South Jersey) Group 3 and going to states, we came out with the confidence we needed to get through this season,” senior goalkeeper Joe Bilgic said. “After coming out with a season like that, we had to prove to people it wasn’t just a fluke. We had to show them this year what we could be.”

And now? With no Coaches Tournament, the annual premiere in-season tournament, or many out-of conference games in a truncated season, it’s difficult to gauge, but Triton is on the short list of teams that could be considered as the best boys soccer team in South Jersey. 

It’s been quite a ride for a senior-laden team that entered school when the Mustangs were just two years removed from an 8-11 season. 

“I don’t think there is, really,” senior Aiden Sommers said of whether there was a top team in South Jersey. “It’s pretty hard to compare all those teams. I think if you’re going to pick one, we should be in the conversation with everybody. But I don’t think there is a clearcut No.1 right now.”

“Yes, we should be – in the conversation,” Guadagno added. “Until we play (other teams), you don’t know.”

Senior Mike Donaghy scored one of Triton’s four goals in a five-minute span early in the second half. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Triton can continue to bolster its resume in the coming weeks. The postseason begins on Saturday and the Mustangs will compete for a region sectional championship.

Last year, Triton’s 3-0 win over Ocean City in the South Jersey Group 3 title game gave the program its first sectional championship in school history. That team won 13 of 15 games entering the state semifinals.

After seeing the way Triton has played this fall, they look very much like the same team: at times dominant and eager to add hardware to the school’s trophy case.

“I look at them and I see how they’ve grown and changed,” Triton coach Bryan Ekstrom said. “And this idea of trying to make them smarter players, to play as a team. So, they’re more effective.”

But after a memorable 2019, there hadn’t been any signs of complacency?

“I’m not going to say it hasn’t happened; but they’re teenagers,” Ekstrom said. “But that’s what they need (coaches) for, to stay focused, and each other, too, to talk about the game. If they’re not talking about the game, their minds go elsewhere. So they need that focus with each other to try to work out the issues that they might have.”

The Mustangs’ strength is in the cohesiveness and chemistry of their upperclassman. Triton’s 18-man roster has 12 seniors and six juniors. They’ve played together for a while and they’re friends on and off the field.

“I play with half the kids with my club team,” Bilgic said, “so we know our styles of play, we know plays that work, plays that don’t.”

“Everyone is OK with each other and knows they’re going to be in the right place at the right time,” added junior Ryan Gale.

Gale has certainly fit that description himself. With two goals against Highland, Gale ran his season total to 10 in 10 games, equaling his output in 24 games in 2019.

“He’s really quick,” Bilgic said. “I think he’s a natural talent. Small, quick, goes through those big people and always has to prove himself.”

In a way, Gale is very much like Triton boys soccer. As a Group 3 school, Triton isn’t necessarily a small school, but in the world of South Jersey soccer, they’re kind of the pesky little brother-type that’s trying to prove themselves to the perennial powers like Shawnee, Delran, and Washington Township, among others.

“We just have to keep working, go into games not thinking we’re just going to roll teams over and go into every game hard,” Sommers said. “(Against Highland) we came out a little flat and went into halftime only up a goal and then really turned it on. We need to play a full 80 minutes.”

“We go into every game thinking, yeah this is us, who we are, and we know what we want to be at the end of the season,” Gale said. “I feel very good about our chances over the next couple of weeks.”

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Ryan is a veteran journalist of 20 years. He’s worked at the Courier-Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Delaware County Daily Times, primarily as a sportswriter, and is currently a sports editor at Newspaper Media Group and an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University.