Blue Tide romps past Haddon Township to complete dominant run
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
It took 36 minutes of onesided dominant play for Harrison High School to take the lead in the NJSIAA Group I state soccer championship against Haddon Township Sunday afternoon at Kean University.
It took all of 20 seconds after halftime for the Blue Tide to enforce their will against their beleaguered opponents. Then it took a span of just one minute and 45 seconds to blow the doors off the contest, like the Blue Tide did in each of their five previous state playoff games prior to Sunday.
Christian Restrepo scored a goal with four minutes left in the first half, then Cristian Marquez, Ali Lakhrif and Ali Lachgar all tallied in the second half, as the Blue Tide romped to a 4-0 victory, giving the school its state and national record 25th NJSIAA state title – and the school’s first since 2008.
The 4-0 whitewash of Haddon Township capped an incredible streak of dominance for the Blue Tide, who finished their season with a 24-3 record, including their six straight wins in the state playoffs by an incredible margin of 31-1.
“I was expecting a really tough game,” said veteran Harrison head coach Mike Rusek, who enjoyed his seventh overall NJSIAA state title and incredibly, the 300th victory since Rusek and his younger brother John took over the Harrison program some 15 years ago.
For the first 36 minutes, it was a tough one – for Haddon Township goalkeeper Kieran Burns, who was diving left and right to make save after save, as the Blue Tide just kept the pressure on from the outset.
The Blue Tide unleashed a barrage of shots at Burns and the onslaught just kept coming. The Blue Tide shot it wide right, wide left, dead on to where Burns had to make a diving save. Leandro Gonzales thought he had a goal, but hit his blast over the crossbar. Marcelo Esquivel hit the crossbar. Restrepo hit the post.
At one point, the Blue Tide held a 20-1 advantage in shots, but had nothing to show for their hard work.
“We just needed to get one,” Rusek said. “We were playing well. I thought we needed to get the first one.”
Finally, Restrepo secured a rebound of a Lakhrif shot and knocked it past Burns for the only goal the Blue Tide would need.
“After we got the first goal, there was a sense of relief,” said Restrepo, a senior midfielder who played a huge role in each of the last two Blue Tide state playoff runs that came up just a little short. “I thought one would just keep us going.”
After halftime, that’s exactly what happened – and it didn’t take long.
Marquez, a junior midfielder, collected the ball immediately after the second half began, moved within shooting range and fired a low shot to the far right side of the goal that eluded Burns. Just 20 seconds into the second half, the Blue Tide had a 2-0 lead.
“I definitely knew it was coming,” said Marquez through the help of an interpreter. “I just didn’t expect it to happen that quickly.”
“We were pushing to get that second goal,” Rusek said. “That was a great goal.”
However, it paled in comparison to the one that followed.
Ten minutes later, Lakhrif knocked in one of the most amazing goals ever witnessed. The senior forward, who came into the game already holding the school’s single-season goal record with 36, secured the ball just outside the box, then somehow maneuvered his way through three defenders including using a spin move, then shook the final defender with a fake and chipped the ball toward a helpless Burns for a 3-0 lead.
“His touch is incredible,” Rusek said. “He made me fall over with the last fake.”
“One goal wasn’t enough for us,” said Lakhrif, who cemented his place in Harrison soccer history with his 37th goal of the season. “I just needed to score one more. It was my last game. I just made the defender go for the ball. He fell down and I shot it.”
Sounds simple, but in reality, the goal was a truly a strike of genius.
Less than a minute later, the Blue Tide put the finishing touches on the masterpiece. Lachgar, who incredibly was stranded at Journal Square last week trying to get home in time for the state semifinal against Waldwick, missing the game, was pulled down in the penalty area. The senior, who lives in Harrison, but attends County Prep, calmly nailed the penalty kick for his first and only goal of the season, pushing the lead to 4-0.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d score a goal like that,” Lachgar said.
Goalkeeper Nick Araujo wasn’t seriously threatened, making just three saves to secure the shutout, his fifth of the state playoffs.
“It was nice to be part of something this special,” Rusek said. “These seniors had a crushing defeat in the state playoffs last year after being undefeated. To end it like this might have been better than any other team we’ve had.” Certainly no other state champion enjoyed such a dominant run. In championship seasons past, there were overtimes and penalty kick shootouts and drama galore. Not this time. This was pure dominance, top to bottom.
“We were pretty sure that since we got another chance to come back (to the state championship game), we weren’t going to let this one slip away,” Rusek said. “We’ve really enjoyed a special time here. When things come together and the kids are out here with a sense of purpose and reason, it’s really nice to be a part of it. It’s unique that they all play for the team, rather than themselves. It’s very unique that way.”
“It was a great way for us senior players to finish,” Lachgar said. “After the last two years, we came so close, but we didn’t have the luck. It’s a great feeling to dominate the way we did.”
“It was a great year,” said Lakhrif, who wore one orange shoe and one lime green cleat for good luck. “I’m going to miss it.”
It’s also a United Nations of sorts, with kids from different backgrounds in Latin America, South America, Europe and now the Middle East, with the two Moroccans (Lakhrif and Lachgar). What are the odds of two players from Morocco who never knew each other before high school joining forces to carve out their own little slice of Harrison soccer history?
Rusek said that the Blue Tide dedicated their state championship victory to the memory of late Harrison Mayor Raymond McDonough, who died last February of a heart attack.
“I think we all miss him a lot,” Rusek said. “We wanted to win it this year for him. He was a big supporter of our team. He was definitely here in spirit.