Kearny High School boys’ soccer head coach Bill Galka knew that last Friday’s NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship game against Montclair was going to be a fierce contest.
“Every time we’ve played them, it’s been a battle,” Galka said. “Montclair has good athletes and soccer players. They played some of the teams we already played, like Seton Hall Prep, Millburn and Union City, so I knew it was going to be a tough one.”
And the conditions Friday evening weren’t exactly conducive for high school soccer. With temperatures right around the freezing mark and a fierce wind blowing across Harvey Field, the setting was needless to say frigid.
“It was cold out for sure,” Galka said. “We told the players to try to forget about it, but it was coldest game that I could remember. The wind was a factor. It was tough.”
But Galka had no idea just how tough, especially after falling behind early, 1-0, then getting the equalizer from Cristian Villegas right before halftime.
“We weren’t going to let the wind hurt us,” Galka said. “We try to keep the ball on the ground, so the wind wasn’t a factor and it eventually died down in the second half. They scored on a PK (penalty kick) early, but this group has shown the ability to come back. We didn’t put our heads down and went right back at it. It was a good sign to get that goal before halftime. Cristian let a shot go that seemed to bounce in front of their goalie, who fumbled it a little. The ball went over the line and we had the tying goal. That lifted us. We didn’t want to go late into the game needing a goal to tie it.”
Galka said that the Kardinals had some good scoring chances in the second half.
“We put on some good pressure and had some opportunities,” Galka said. “But we just couldn’t connect. I think we were the stronger team in the second half.”
As the game wound down, Kearny senior goalkeeper Bryan Noristz started to think about what might transpire.
“I was hoping that we could put them away in regulation,” Noristz said. “But yeah, I started thinking about overtime.”
And after 20 minutes of scoreless overtime, it meant only one way to settle the sectional champion _ the nerve-wracking penalty kicks.
“I asked God to help me with the PKs,” Noristz said.
A year ago, the Kardinals went to PKs to defeat West Orange to win the sectional crown _ the first in Galka’s tenure as head coach. Now, it’s a year later and the Kards were in the same predicament again.
“It’s nervous time,” Galka said. “It’s nail biting time. We always practice PKs at the end of practice, but you can’t train for that kind of pressure. You have to end the game somehow. You hate to lose that way and ecstatic if you win.”
Noristz was without question ready for his moment in the sun _ or in this case, the dark and cold November air at Harvey.
“I actually had this feeling that I was going to come up big,” Noristz said.
The first shot of the PK session came to Noristz’s left and he dove to make a brilliant save.
“I knew that the first one was important,” said Noristz, who made six saves in regulation. “I was confident that I could get it. I was actually hoping I could save them all, but I was really confident that I could get a few saves in.”
Meanwhile, the Kardinals were locked in to make their shots. Jose Escandon, the sensational junior midfielder, and teammates Juan Rendon, Marcus Hidalgo and Nickolas Fiallos all connected on their tries.
“I had confidence that we could make them,” Galka said. “It all comes down to pressure.”
It left Noritsz in goal for one last attempt.
Noritsz dove at the final shot to his left. He ended up with the ball.
“I looked down at my hands and couldn’t believe I had the ball,” Noritsz said. “The feeling was amazing. I was still holding the ball. I was the man. It felt like the whole town of Kearny was coming towards me, not just my teammates. I couldn’t let go of the ball. It was amazing that I was the one who made this happen. It was insane.”
Noritsz had the ball and the Kardinals had their second straight North 1, Group IV state sectional title.
“The key was Bryan coming up with the big saves,” Galka said. “He made that first great save and put the pressure on them. Then, he made the last save. He’s been excellent for us in goal. He worked on his game and worked on his punts to become a better goalie. He’s been consistent all year. He was very confident and he should be.”
Galka was relieved that the Kardinals moved on.
“There’s so much pressure and so much tension, through the game and into the penalty kicks,” Galka said. “There were a lot of tears of joy after this one. It was a dramatic way to finish a game, especially when your season could end with it. The game was so tight. I don’t look forward to PKs, because anything can happen.”
But the Kardinals had the main man between the pipes.
“I loved it,” Noritsz said. “After it was over, I hugged my best friend Ryan (Valdez) and we cried together. That’s what Kearny’s all about. We do everything together.”
The Kardinals (18-0-4) were set to face Section 2 champion Bridgewater-Raritan in the overall state semifinals Tuesday at Franklin Township High School at 7:30 p.m. A win there would put the Kardinals in position to win the overall Group IV state championship Sunday at Kean University at 3 p.m. and a chance to end the year with an undefeated record.
The other local team vying for a state sectional championship Friday was Harrison and the Blue Tide was not as fortunate as their Kardinal neighbors. Dover came to Harrison and soundly defeated the Blue Tide, 3-0, to win the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II crown. The Blue Tide ended their season with a fine 20-3 record.