Soccer player Neal Melchionni is the personification of the sports adage: "It's not how many times you are knocked down that is important, it's how many times you get up."
Melchionni, a midfielder and catalyst in Ocean City's offense, had a target on his back in all 25 games this season, especially in the NJSIAA state Group 3 championship game against Ramapo at The College of New Jersey. The senior captain, who had sparked the Red Raiders to an undefeated season, was knocked to the artificial turf four times in the state final, as Ocean City lost for the first time, 1-0.
"Four hits are frustrating, but you play through them," said Melchionni, who after one hit looked like a fighter who couldn't get off the canvas before the bell sounded. "When I'm marked, there are so many other guys [on my team] that are strong with the ball that it isn't even a factor."
It was a factor in the state final.
Two and three players ghosted Melchionni, and no other Red Raider was able to finish a goal for the first time all season.
Melchionni finished the season with 11 goals and 10 assists, and the red-hot Red Raiders, ranked No. 1 by The Inquirer all season, rolled to a 23-1-1 finish that probably would not have been possible without No. 5 in the middle.
For his outstanding all-around play, Melchionni has been named The Inquirer's player of the year in South Jersey.
"No one expected us to get where we did this season because last year we lost a lot of starting seniors," said Melchionni, a former ball boy. "Those guys are the reason we are 23-1-1. You can't win 23 games with one guy."
Melchionni's modesty makes others, such as Ocean City coach Mike Pellegrino, Rancocas Valley coach Damon Petras, and RV player Luke Calvano, put things into perspective.
Pellegrino, who coached Ocean City to four state titles between 1999 and 2005, described Melchionni as the best center midfielder in South Jersey because he needs to be double- and triple-teamed in order to be neutralized. The 17-year-old from Beesley's Point elevated the play of those around him with his skill and emotion, Pellegrino said.
Petras noted Melchionni was the best player on the field on Oct. 10, when Ocean City and then-No. 2 Rancocas Valley played to a 1-1 tie.
Calvano, a senior left back said: "Neal and [Cinnaminson's] Dan Koreyni are the best at that position in South Jersey. Neal is real quick, with fast feet and good vision, but his best asset is his nonstop work rate."
Melchionni's most memorable senior season moments were scoring a goal in Ocean City's 2-0 victory over Washington Township in the championship game of the prestigious South Jersey Soccer Coaches' Association tournament. He also noted that during games against Clearview and West Deptford, opposing players were yelling "keep him right" because Melchionni is left-footed. He went on to score with his right foot.
Pellegrino said Melchionni's ability to score with both feet was the most impressive thing to see in his player's development.
"I wouldn't call my right foot developed for scoring yet, it's still a work in progress," Melchionni said.
That progress will move to Lehigh University next season, as Melchionni will follow in the soccer steps of former Ocean City players Kyle Evans and Adam Williamson. An honors student, Melchionni chose Lehigh over Navy, Cornell and Monmouth because he likes the campus, fits well into Lehigh's possession style of play, and he will be able to earn a dual degree in arts and engineering.
"Neal will have a wonderful career at Lehigh," Pellegrino said, adding that he will miss all his seniors. "But Neal is a special case. He was running the lines for me since he was 9. . . . His goal from an early age was to control the game for me."
And for the most part, Melchionni did. And every time he got knocked down, he got back up.