Midway through the first half of Sunday’s NJSIAA Group IV boys’ soccer championship against Princeton, Kearny’s brilliant junior midfielder Jose Escandon unfurled a wicked shot from about 30 yards out that appeared headed toward being the first goal of the match.
“I thought it was going in,” Kearny head coach Bill Galka said.
“It was a good shot,” Escandon said. “The keeper (Patrick Jacobs) was able to get it and made a great save.”
Undaunted, Escandon knew that he would get other chances.
“I think we just had to keep playing,” Escandon said. “We had to keep the ball. That’s how we play. That’s how we do well.”
Sure enough, the Kardinals kept the ball in the second half _ and Escandon kept supplying the pressure.
In the 50th minute (10 minutes into the second half), Escandon got the Kardinals on the board with a blast from 18 yards out that Jacobs had no chance of stopping. Escandon’s 21st goal of the season gave the Kards a 1-0 lead.
After scoring, Escandon ran to the sidelines holding four fingers aloft. He then went down to one knee, said a little prayer, then made like Robin Hood and pulled an imaginary arrow from his imaginary backpack and gestured to fire the pseudo-arrow into the darkening sky over Kean University.
For good measure, Escandon took a direct free kick from about 20 yards out with 10 minutes remaining and went to Jacobs’ left. The hard blast eluded Jacobs for Escandon’s second goal of the game and sent everyone into a frenzy.
After Princeton scored a goal with a little over two minutes left, Ryan Valdez sealed the deal with just six seconds remaining on a breakaway, giving Kearny the 3-1 victory that enabled the Kardinals to clinch their first Group IV state title since 2004 and their first outright state title since 2002.
The championship in 2004 was shared with Rancocas Valley, when the two teams played to a draw in the state title match. The Kardinals last won the outright Group IV title in 2002 when the Kards defeated Shawnee in the championship game.
The win also enabled the Kardinals (19-0-5) to complete their first undefeated season since 1984.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Escandon, who cemented his chances to becoming the overall New Jersey Player of the Year with his two-goal performance in the state title game. “We all work as a team and all work as a family. We’re a family. These are my brothers. We just worked harder to be able to take the title.”
Galka finally had a state championship as a head coach.
“It is a relief to finally get one,” said Galka, who earned his first state sectional title as a coach last season, only to fall in the overall Group IV semifinals. “We knew that we didn’t want to share it like the last one. Before the season started, we set goals of winning the county, the state sectional and the state championship. Usually, you don’t get all three.”
But this time, the Kardinals did.
The Kardinals were the better team from the outset despite the winter chill and wicked winds that engulfed Alumni Stadium at Kean. More than 2,000 fans packed the place, with many of the followers in attendance from Kearny, including the cheerleaders and the school’s marching band.
“I thought we had control of the game,” Galka said. “We just needed that goal.”
Escandon finally provided it with a brilliant play. He circled past two defenders, then let go of a fine shot in the second half that gave the Kards the lead for good.
“It was a great shot and he certainly put it in,” Galka said.
Escandon’s second goal with 10 minutes left gave the Kardinals a sense of comfort.
“I like taking free kicks,” Escandon said. “When I saw him (Princeton goalkeeper Jacobs) move too much to the right, that’s when I decided to go left. I knew I had it.”
The score remained at 2-0 until Princeton made a push to get a goal. It came off the alert foot of Andrew Beamer, whose late father, Todd, was a hero passenger aboard Flight 93 that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after it was hijacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. Todd Beamer was one of the passengers who overtook the hijackers and forced the plane to crash in the field instead of the destination in Washington, D.C.
With the score, 2-1, in the closing seconds, Kearny senior forward Ryan Valdez saw his dream come true.
“I honestly knew I was going to score a goal today,” said Valdez, who scored only his second goal of the season. “I knew the ball was going to come to me. I saw that there were only 15 seconds left and then I saw the ball. My heart started beating so fast. I had been asking God for a goal and he blessed me with one. (Assistant) Coach (Jimmy) Hempel said he believed in me and said that I was going to score today. It’s incredible how everything happened. It came at the right time.”
Valdez ran down the ball on a breakaway, chipped it over Jacobs and it rolled into the net for the final score of the day, clinching the historic day.
“I never thought in my senior year that I would get a goal in the state championship,” Valdez said. “We started as family and ended up playing as family.”
Valdez’s best friend, goalkeeper Bryan Noritsz, made seven saves in preserving the championship. After the game, Noritsz hugged the state championship trophy for about a half hour, caressing it like a father holds on to his newborn child.
Noritsz went from being a third string net minder last year to the backup to begin this season, then winning the job for good during preseason scrimmages.
“I honestly didn’t think I could take it this far,” Noritsz said. “But I kept doing what I had to do and we kept doing what we had to do. I noticed early on that we had a really good team and had a chance to win it all. When my brother Ryan Valdez scored the goal, I knew it that we were state champs. I believed he was going to score one. I really did.”
“This guy supported me since Day One,” Valdez said of Noritsz. “It was almost meant to happen.”
Noritsz applauded Valdez’s friendship.
“He stayed by my side through it all,” Noritsz said. “And now look. We’re state champs.”
The Kardinals survived wins in the state playoffs by penalty kicks to get to the state title match in Kean and a chance to write a page in history _ which they most certainly did.
It was the first state title in 13 years and the first overall in 15 years and the first undefeated campaign in 33 years _ all historic, every single page.
“You’re always a break away, here and there, in the state playoffs,” Galka said. “We got the breaks this time.”
And the biggest break was having the smallest guy on the field put the No. 10 red jersey on Sunday. Just think, Escandon, already one of the greatest players in the rich history of Kearny High soccer, gets another year to play for the Kardinals. That’s a scary thought for Kearny opposition in 2018.