By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The NJSIAA state soccer playoffs have moved into the semifinal round. Most of the local teams have, unfortunately, been eliminated from contention.
Except two old reliable teams – and then one relative newcomer.
It’s only fitting that both Kearny and Harrison’s boys’ soccer teams are still fighting for the chance to be a state sectional champion. After all, the Kardinals and the Blue Tide represent the best in high school soccer. Both programs have been established as two of the very best New Jersey has to offer for a very long time.
Since the NJSIAA went to a playoff format in the mid-1970s, Harrison has won an astounding 14 state championships. Only Chatham has won more in the state. Kearny has captured nine state titles, tied for fifth most in state history.
So it’s almost expected that both teams would be contending for state honors – Harrison in Group II and Kearny in Group IV.
Both the Kardinals and the Blue Tide, the top seed in their respective brackets, won their first two respective games in the state playoffs.
The Blue Tide, top seed in North Jersey Section 2, Group II, rolled to their two wins, defeating Ridgefield Park, 6-0, in the opening round, then toppling Newark Tech, 3-0, in the second round last Friday.
The Kardinals, the top seed in North Jersey Section 1, Group IV, knocked off Roxbury in the first round, 3-0, then shook off a tough battle from Clifton, 1-0, in the second round.
The Kards were now scheduled to face fourth-seed Bergen Tech in the semifinals of the sectional at Harvey Field, while the Blue Tide were set to take on Caldwell in the semis at Harrison High, with both games going on approximately simultaneously a quarter mile apart on Schuyler Avenue.
Harrison head coach Mike Rusek admitted that it was only fitting that Kearny and Harrison would both be battling for state titles at this juncture of the season.
“November is always a fun time for soccer in West Hudson,” said Rusek, who was a standout player at Kearny during his high school days. “Both of our schools are traditionally focused on state tournaments. We’re both the top seeds. It’s that time of year.”
Rusek, whose team toppled Kearny, 1-0, in the semifinals of the Hudson County Tournament last month, always holds his relationship with Kearny close to him.
“I always root for Kearny in the state tournament,” Rusek said. “If we both were able to win, that would be wonderful.”
The Blue Tide, still unbeaten with a 20-0-1 record, is enjoying its best season since going undefeated in the 2002 season, posting a 24-0-1 record that year.
One of the major reasons for the Blue Tide’s success has been the play of senior forward Jose Neto, who leads the team with 25 goals.
“Jose is really clicking at the right time,” said Rusek, who hopes that the Blue Tide can capture their first state title since 2008. “He’s been the leader of the team. He’s getting better, getting more and more goals each month. He’s always around the goal and always attacking. He likes being the one who has the pressure on his shoulders. It’s great to have a player like that on your side.”
The other standout player for the Blue Tide has been senior defender Modou Sowe, who is one of the most diverse players in the state and clearly an All-State candidate. Incredibly, Sowe has tallied 19 goals, including five already in the state tournament.
“I really believe that he will go further than any player I’ve ever coached,” Rusek said of Sowe. “We’ve had a lot of very good players, but he’s going to succeed at a higher level.”
The other key to the Blue Tide’s success has been their defense, which has posted an incredible 17 shutouts this year in 21 games.
“Modou takes pride in that as well,” Rusek said.
Kearny head coach Bill Galka was not pleased with the way his team was playing prior to the state tournament. The Kards lost to rival Harrison, then lost an independent regular season game to Morristown.
“I talked to the team a little bit after that game and told them that they wouldn’t have a chance to move forward if they kept playing that way,” Galka said. “I don’t know if they took that game (Morristown) lightly, but they took the talk we had to heart and have played well.”
The Kardinals had to face some adversity, when standout goalkeeper Sebastian Ferriera went down with a shoulder injury, so backup Michael Barros has been outstanding, collecting two shutouts in the state tourney.
“He made some key saves,” Galka said. “He was the backup, but trained hard all year and now it’s his turn.”
The Kards have been getting scoring from different people, not just leading scorer Andres Pesantez. For example, Kevin Tapia was the hero against Clifton, scoring the game’s lone goal.
“We’re getting scoring from different areas,” Galka said. “That has helped.”
Both teams have not surrendered a goal in the state playoffs. That means one thing: It’s very hard to lose if you don’t allow the opponent to score.
Galka also agrees that it’s good for local soccer when both Kearny and Harrison are doing well in the state tourney.
“I think most people want to see both teams make a run,” Galka said. “We’re finally playing strong and tough. We’re starting to play much better at the right time.”
The third local team still alive in the state tournament is Nutley’s girls’ team, which advanced to the semifinals of the North Jersey Section 2, Group III bracket.
It’s the furthest that Nutley has ever advanced in the state playoffs.
Coach Mike DiPiano’s team moved on with a 2-1 win over Millburn last week, keyed by Victoria Healy’s clutch late goal.
The Maroon Raiders were slated to face West Morris in the semifinals, also earning a home game.
It means a great amount of excitement in November for the local soccer teams, two old favorites and one invigorating newcomer.