By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The Kearny High School girls’ soccer team enjoyed a 17-4- 1 season a year ago, capped by winning the Hudson County Tournament title for a third straight year and reaching the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV sectional semifinals, before dropping a tough 1-0 decision to Livingston.
Although the Kardinals lost Observer Female Athlete of the Year Stefanie Gomes to graduation, the Kards have enough talent returning to make a solid run at both the county and state titles.
“I’m certainly optimistic,” said head coach Vin Almeida, who begins his fourth year as head coach. “We should be a contender. It’s just a matter of seeing how good they become.”
Leading the way for the Kardinals is senior midfielder Katie O’Neill, who has already given a verbal commitment to play at the University of Binghamton next season.
“Wherever she goes, we go,” Almeida said of the talented O’Neill, who scored 21 goals and had 18 assists last year. “She’s fantastic. We’re hoping that she becomes a leader and she’s able to raise the level of the athletes around her.”
Almeida said that when he was a student at St. Benedict’s Prep, he watched superstar Claudio Reyna do the same thing, make everyone around him better.
“That’s what we’re hoping with Katie,” Almeida said. “We’re going to push her for a little something extra and hope that she can have the same effect that Claudio had on my teammates at St. Benedict’s. She’s a special player. She has already taken on the leadership qualities and the change has been noticeable.”
There’s no question that O’Neill is the best player in this area and should be a candidate for All-State honors. She’s that good.
The Kardinals’ strength lies in their midfield, with junior Nicole Kelly also returning. Kelly scored four goals last year and that number should increase tremendously.
“Nicole is looking very good so far,” Almeida said. “She did a lot of weight training in the offseason and it’s paid off. You can see with her strength and stamina on the field. I think she’s going to step up and be more of a scorer this year. She’s very dangerous.”
Senior Noura Farih saw a little action last year in the midfield. Almeida thinks she’s the enforcer, the tough defender, among the talented midfielders. Sophomore Kathleen Dos Reis has been a pleasant surprise.
“She’s very skilled and very tough,” Almeida said of Dos Reis. “She has great vision on the field.” A pair of sophomores, Taylor Monroe and Salma Bahzidi, will also see time in the midfield.
The Kardinals also have strength in the back line. Senior Haley Durning, perhaps the best all-around athlete in Kearny, returns to her spot in goal.
“I think she’s comfortable being there now,” Almeida said of Durning, who is also a track and field standout. “Last year, we were inexperienced in goal and Haley stepped up and decided to take on the responsibility. She did a fantastic job. Now, she’s a lot more comfortable there and she’s going to have a great season. I know she’s good in track, but she has a lot of potential as a goalkeeper.”
Sophomore Amanda Eustice is the team’s sweeper.
“She started at right back last year as a freshman, but she’s very confident back there. In fact, she’s a machine. She never gets tired. It’s difficult to get by her. Even for someone who is small, she’s a relentless defender.”
Sophomore Dana Green is the team’s stopper.
“We like her there because she’s big and strong,” Almeida said. “She’s comfortable in that position.”
The other defenders are senior Jamie Carlin, who saw some action last year, and the Rodrigues sisters, sophomore Eliza and senior Jessica, although Jessica is battling a knee injury right now.
Up front, the Kardinals will count on junior Melissa Pineda, who started last year alongside goal machine Gomes.
“I’m hoping that Melissa learned a lot playing there last year,” Almeida said. “She’s been fantastic so far.”
Sophomore Barbara Taiva, who Almeida said has a “terrific shot and she’s very skillful,” will play forward as well, along with freshman Amber Crispin, who has both talent and potential.
Almeida likes what he sees.
“It’s always good to have talent, but you need to be disciplined as well,” Almeida said. “I’m optimistic with the potential we have. It may get a little frustrating early, but as the season goes on, we can operate like we have in the past few years. We have a lot of talented young kids. Overall, I’m encouraged.”
The Kardinals open their season Thursday against Memorial of West New York.