When John Maher answered the phone and was congratulated for winning his 200th career game as the Middle Township High School boys soccer coach, he laughed and said, “It sure was tough coming.”

That it was indeed.

Middle needed nearly 100 minutes of soccer to solve the Oakcrest defense in an important Cape-Atlantic National Conference game in Mays Landing Tuesday and finally did so when Zack Thomas ripped the golden goal into the upper right corner with 2 ½ minutes to play in the second period of extra time as the Panthers recorded a 1-0 victory.

“We weren’t playing bad but they were playing very spirited against us,” Maher said. “We missed a lot of good opportunities but we kept on working hard. We played good defense and we didn’t give them any real quality opportunities. They had a couple decent plays on us but (goalkeeper) Nik Anagnou came up big. He’s been playing out of his mind for us.”

With a tie not helping Middle’s place in the CAL National standings, Maher began pushing defenders forward in extra time. Thomas is Middle’s center back.

“We started to move Zack Thomas up into the attack and he was unaccounted for a couple times,” Maher said. “The last time the ball came in from the right side and then Ray Wilson knocked it and it went right to Thomas coming in from just outside the 18. He one-touched it and beat the keeper.”

Middle improved to 11-1 overall, 7-1 in CAL National Conference to keep pace with Ocean City, which is also 7-1 in conference play. The teams have split their two meetings, both by 2-1 scores. Middle still has another game with Oakcrest, as well as one with Cedar Creek, remaining in conference play. Middle can do no worse than tie Ocean City for the conference title with victories in those games.

Maher, in his 15th season, improved to 200-79-17 for his career with Tuesday’s win. He has led the program to four National Conference titles (2007, 2012, 2013, 2015) and a pair of South Jersey Group II championships (2008, 2013).

“I guess if you’re looking for perspective, the cliché answer is that good things happen with longevity. But my perspective is that I’m 63 years old and I’m thankful God has given me the health to do this,” Maher said. “I’ve had a lot of support from my wife and sons to just keep at it all these years and I have a lot of support from the administration at the school because they’ve all been very good to me. The parents have been supportive and the kids keep playing hard every year. That makes it easy to enjoy this and it helps keep me young.”

CORNER KICKS: Middle has qualified for the prestigious South Jersey Soccer Coaches Association Tournament. The Panthers are seeded 11th out of 16 teams in a tournament that crowns a true South Jersey champion regardless of enrollment. Middle is scheduled to play at No. 6 St. Augustine Prep on Thursday.