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NJSIAA Group I run with school’s 25th state title

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Blue Tide romps past Haddon Township to complete dominant run

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

UNION – 

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.

Photo by Jim Hague From l., assistant coach Mickey Rusek, senior Leandro Gonzales, head coach Mike Rusek, assistant coach John Rusek, senior forward Ali Lakhrif and senior midfielder Jorge Castro pose with the NJSIAA Group I state championship trophy after the Blue Tide rolled past Haddon Township, 4-0, Sunday at Kean University. It was the 25th state title for the school, the seventh in head coach Mike Rusek’s regime and the 300th win since Rusek took over the Harrison program 15 years ago.

Photo by Jim Hague
From l., assistant coach Mickey Rusek, senior Leandro Gonzales, head coach
Mike Rusek, assistant coach John Rusek, senior forward Ali Lakhrif and senior
midfielder Jorge Castro pose with the NJSIAA Group I state championship
trophy after the Blue Tide rolled past Haddon Township, 4-0, Sunday at Kean
University. It was the 25th state title for the school, the seventh in head coach
Mike Rusek’s regime and the 300th win since Rusek took over the Harrison
program 15 years ago.

 

“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.

‘Dig Pink’ event big moment for Nutley volleyball

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Cristina Nicastro took over the Nutley High School girls’ volleyball program this fall and wanted to have the Maroon Raiders get involved with a community- related project during the season.

For the prior three years, while she was the head coach at Cedar Grove, Nicastro organized a “Dig Pink” fundraiser, where all of the proceeds of the event would go to the Side- Out Foundation, a group of volleyball teams on the high school, college and club levels that raise money for breast cancer awareness and research.

“I wanted to do the same thing here in Nutley,” said Nicastro, who just recently completed her first season with the Maroon Raiders. “Everyone was so supportive. The school’s administration, the kids, especially the parents, all got behind this cause.”

So as the season wound down, the Maroon Raiders played host to Bloomfield and held their first-ever “Dig Pink” fundraiser, where anyone and everyone was asked to don pink clothes and reach into their pockets to help the worthy cause.

“As soon as someone walked into the gym, there was pink everywhere,” Nicastro said. “It really was amazing. It was truly a ‘Pink- Out.’”

The parents made baked goods to be sold that day. The players were at the gym all day prior to the match decorating the gym and making the place pink and festive. “

Our players made paper volleyballs with their names on it, asking for a donation,” Nicastro said. “We probably made 1,000 paper volleyballs. It was really nice.”

The Third Half Club of Nutley, an athletic support group comprised of Nutley alumni, donated the money to purchase the pink T-shirts that the players wore.

“We also asked everyone there to wear something pink,” Nicastro said. “It really was a special night.”

More importantly, the Maroon Raiders managed to raise $3,000 for their efforts, one of the top schools in the “Dig Pink” fundraiser nationwide

And to make the evening complete, the Maroon Raiders won the match against Bloomfield, avenging a defeat earlier in the season.

“Next year, it will be bigger and better,” Nicastro said. “Hardly anyone knew about it this year. Hopefully, we will turn it into a Nutley volleyball tradition, a community event for years to come.”

The Maroon Raiders completed the first year of the Nicastro era with an 11-11 record. The new coach had hoped for better results, but after all, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

“I’m happy we got to .500,” Nicastro said. “We had a rough start and it was hard to come back from it.”

The Maroon Raiders dropped their first four matches this season, putting them in a hole that was difficult to climb out of.

“We were 0-4, but it was so frustrating, because we were losing games in three sets and losing by two or three points,” Nicastro said. “We were so close, right there in every single game.”

The Maroon Raiders had a chance to upset perennially state-ranked power Livingston in the opening weeks, but fell to a hard defeat.

“I think that was all part of the growing pains,” Nicastro said. “The girls were getting to know me and I was getting to know them. It was tough for a while. But then, things finally clicked. The girls got used to the rotation and started beating teams left and right.”

Senior Molly Demgard was one of the top Maroon Raider performers. The outside hitter earned First Team All-Super Essex Conference honors and finished the season with an astounding 127 kills.

“She was my top returning varsity player and I really depended upon her experience,” Nicastro said. “She has a great serve and held us on the line.” Senior setter Jennifer Lohr also played a huge role.

“We relied on her to set on every single point,” Nicastro said. “We played a 5-1 formation, which meant that we were asking a lot of her. She did a phenomenal job. There were very few balls that she didn’t get to.”

Lohr had 191 service points to lead the team.

The team also relied upon senior reserves Victoria Matturro, Kristen Palermo, Abigail Gardner and Amanda Llano, who aided in the cause.

Matturro and Gardner were defensive specialists, Palermo an outside hitter and Llano a middle hitter.

“The seniors really helped to acclimate me to the program,” Nicastro said. “They were a huge help.”

Assistant coach Jenna Dwyer, a Nutley alum and former volleyball and basketball standout at the school, was also a huge help.

Junior Claudia Martin was the Maroon Raiders’ outside hitter, with twin sister Tess the opposite hitter.

“Claudia has a very unique serve who came up big for us on the back,” Nicastro said. “Tess had a big role in that she played three of the six rotations on the back row and helped us keep balls alive.”

Sophomore middle hitter Jessica Robinson had 226 digs, tops on the team.

“She was the libero once and we switched her position,” Nicastro said. “She studied hard and learned the position well. She became a great defender and was very consistent. She’s an excellent utility player.”

Sophomore Sara McEnery was another middle hitter, with good size (5-foot-10) at the net.

“We relied on her a lot,” Nicastro said of McEnery, who had 52 blocks, tops on the team.

Junior Emily Varga was the team’s reserve setter. She also spent a lot of time studying the game this year.

“She will be ready to step into that role next year as our top setter,” Nicastro said of McEnery. “I’m confident she can step into that role well.”

So the Maroon Raiders made Nicastro’s first season a successful one.

“I did consider it a very successful season,” Nicastro said. “I came in and had to make some changes. They had to understand my way of teaching the game.”

And for a change, the postseason won’t be that long.

“The girls are already talking about next season,” Nicastro said. “They’re ready to go now. They’re all excited about it and talking about it. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Harrison’s Lachgar finds his way and makes finale memorable

Lachgar_web

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

The Harrison High School boys’ soccer team was all set to take on Waldwick in the NJSIAA Group I semifinals last Wednesday and senior defender Ali Lachgar was definitely excited to play in the game and get a chance to avenge last year’s loss in the same round of the state tournament.

But disaster struck. Lachgar, who attends County Prep in Jersey City but plays soccer for his home district of Harrison, left his school in plenty of time to get back home to Harrison in time to catch the team bus.

“I left school at 1 p.m. and got to Journal Square about 1:50 p.m.,” Lachgar explained. “When I got there, there was an announcement that all (PATH) trains from Journal Square to Newark were suspended temporarily.”

Apparently, a woman had fallen onto the train tracks and needed to be rescued. Service was shut down.

After an hour, Lachgar was panic stricken.

“I tried calling my parents, but they were at work,” Lachgar said. “There was no one else I could think of. Every minute that went by was so frustrating.”

The Harrison team bus was leaving school at 4 p.m. in time for the scheduled 6 p.m. kickoff at Indian Hills High School in Oakland.

It was at that time that Lachgar realized his worst nightmare had become a reality. He was going to have to miss the Blue Tide’s huge state semifinal game.

“I had to wait for my Dad to come get me,” Lachgar said. “No trains were running all night. I missed the game, what could have been my last game. I was so disappointed not to be there.”

“It was terrible,” Harrison head coach Mike Rusek said. “He was actually texting me and telling me where he was. I asked him if there was any way he could get someone to take him to the game, but there was no chance.”

The transportation issue had plagued Lachgar in the past.

“Since he goes to County Prep, he would come and go at practice,” Harrison head coach Mike Rusek said. “We didn’t know if he would be able to make it to practice every day. It was difficult being at another school.”

“My parents had it in mind that I would go to County Prep to further my education,” said Lachgar, who is another player of Moroccan descent on the Blue Tide roster, joining record-breaking goal scorer Ali Lahkrif. “I always played soccer with my friends down the courts. I never thought I would play soccer in high school.”

Lachgar went from Washington Middle School to County Prep, instead of going to Harrison High.

“At first, I was a little disappointed, because all my friends went to Harrison,” Lachgar said. “I was a little heartbroken and hurt, but after a few months, I got over it.”

But there was always that transportation thing. “Especially this year,” Lachgar said. “Practice would begin at 3:30 and there were times I didn’t get there until 4. But the coaches were understanding and were really lenient. Coach (Mike) Rusek always told me that he knew he had a place for me.”

Rusek definitely liked Lachgar’s potential, especially his size along the backline.

“He was a JV (junior varsity) player his first two years and last year, he came in off the bench,” Rusek said. “(Assistant coach and brother) John (Rusek) and I always thought that Ali would help this team out. He’s smart. He’s such a tall kid, but he’s smooth for his size. He could pretty much play anywhere, but he definitely helped us on the back line.”

Lachgar missed the game against Waldwick, a game won by the Blue Tide, 4-0, to advance to the overall NJSIAA Group I state championship game against Haddon Township Sunday.

“It was a big loss for us,” Rusek said. “I had to make a few adjustments on the way to the game. I was a little nervous that he wasn’t there, because Waldwick had a high scoring forward (Andrew Hymson) who had 20-plus goals this year. But the rest of the team stepped up without Ali. It could have been a tough one.”

Lachgar was obviously pleased that his high school career didn’t end in Journal Square.

“It was a huge sigh of relief for me, because I got to play one more game with my teammates,” Lachgar said. “I was checking updates on line about the game. I knew we would do well. We dominated.”

And Lachgar was not about to miss the state finale. “I was going to be at the school early,” Lachgar said.

Lachgar was with his teammates when they got to Kean University Sunday afternoon and the Blue Tide rolled once again, defeating Haddon Township by a similar 4-0 outcome, capturing the school’s national record 25th  state championship.

And as luck would have it, Lachgar, who went the entire season without a single goal, got his chance to make the score books.

With the Blue Tide holding a commanding 3-0 lead, Lachgar was taken down in the penalty area, earning a penalty kick.

“We have a rule that if you get fouled in the box, it’s your penalty kick,” Rusek said. “You earned it. Unless you want to pass it off to someone else, it’s yours.”

Lachgar didn’t hesitate at all. “He just grabbed the ball and went to the line,” Rusek said. “He didn’t have a goal all year, but he knew he was taking that shot.”

“Usually Leandro (Gonzales) takes the penalty kicks and he wanted to take it,” Lachgar said. “But I always joked with my friends that I was saving my goal for the state finals. This was my last chance, so I was taking that penalty kick and burying it.”

Which is exactly what Lachgar did, putting a cherry on the one-sided sundae that gives Harrison yet another state championship.

“There’s no better feeling in the world,” Lachgar said. “I can’t even put it into words. Was this really possible? I was the last one to score in the 25th state championship in the school’s history. You can’t even explain it. It’s amazing. It’s kind of like a Cinderella story. From not being able to help on Wednesday to scoring a goal in the state championship. Just amazing.”

“It really is incredible,” said Rusek of Lachgar, who has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week and the final honoree of the fall scholastic sports season. “It was well earned. Here’s four years of hard work all coming together in that one moment. It’s really like a Hollywood ending. Ali is the kind of player that every coach would like to have. It’s a great way for him to end his career.”

Lachgar would like to continue playing soccer in college. He has received moderate interest from schools like Seton Hall and Ramapo. He would also like to major in athletic training in college. Needless to say, he would be a major get for any school who gets him – provided he gets to the game on time.

STATE CHAMPS AGAIN!

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Harrison defeats Haddon Township, 4-0, to win 25th NJSIAA state soccer title in school history (Photo by Jim Hague)

The Harrison High School boys’ soccer team pose with the NJSIAA Group I state championship trophy, after defeating Haddon Township, 4-0, Sunday afternoon at Kean University in Union. It marked the 25th NJSIAA state championship in the school’s rich and storied history, adding to their state and national records. It was the first time since 2008 that the Blue Tide earned a state title. Senior Ali Lahkrif increased his single season school scoring record to 37 goals in the process, as the Blue Tide avenged defeats in the overall state title game in 2012 and the state semifinals last year. For more about the Blue Tide’s latest state title, read Jim Hague’s reports from the state title game in the Observer sports section.

It’s a Blue Tide ‘Three-Peat’

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Harrison wins third straight state sectional soccer title

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer 

HARRISON –

It was the final time that Jorge Castro was getting a chance to play soccer on his home turf at Harrison High School, so the Blue Tide senior midfielder wanted to make sure it was a memorable day.

“I’ve been here for four years and this was my last time here,” said Castro, who led the Blue Tide into action in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championship game last Thursday afternoon against Secaucus. “This game really meant a lot to us.” Castro made the most of his last home game, scoring a brilliant goal in the second half, leading the Blue Tide to a 2-0 victory, giving Harrison its third straight state sectional championship.

“Winning three in a row really means a lot,” said Castro, who unleashed a rocket blast from about 35 yards out that eluded stubborn Secaucus goalkeeper Eric Quitiquit for the final score of the game. “I think they kind of figured out who we were, so they were going to be tough to beat this time.”

Harrison (22-3) had defeated Secaucus twice previously in the regular season, winning by 5-0 and 3-0 margins. But the Patriots were a more stubborn opponent this time, not allowing a goal until Ali Lakhrif’s header off a Leandro Gonzales cross went past Quitiquit with 32 minutes remaining in the game.

It was the 35th goal of the season for Lakhrif, who broke the all-time single season school record for goal scoring earlier last week.

Lakhrif was wearing two different colored shoes, one a fluorescent orange and the other a luscious lime green.

“I wanted to do something a little different for good luck,” said Lakhrif, who has now scored 10 goals in the five games that he’s donned two different colored cleats. “I was glad to be able to get the first goal, because after that, the game opened up for us.”

Harrison head coach Mike Rusek realized that Secaucus was a tougher opponent than the first two games this season.

“It was very tough to beat this team three times,” Rusek said. “The coach (Christopher Garcia) knows us well and they played us hard. They had a lot of good, tough kids. You fear that you’re playing against a team like this and you dominate action, but you make one mistake, have one breakdown and the result could be different. We said to them at halftime that they just had to keep coming, that the goal would come.”

Gonzales made a perfect cross and the guy with the two different colored shoes used his head to add to his scoring record.

“We knew that our best opportunity to score was from our midfield,” Rusek said. “Leandro made a perfect pass and Ali made a perfect header.”

The score remained that way until there was 13 minutes left, when Castro made his sensational shot.

Photo by Jim Hague Harrison defender Hector Lago (2) moves towards the ball during the Blue Tide’s 2-0 win over Secaucus in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championship game last week.

Photo by Jim Hague
Harrison defender Hector Lago (2) moves towards the ball during the Blue
Tide’s 2-0 win over Secaucus in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I
championship game last week.

 

“He’s always been capable of doing that,” Rusek said. “It was a great shot. It was perfect timing, because it made us very tough to beat with a two-goal lead.”

As it turned out, the two teams could have played until next August and Secaucus would still be searching for a way to get a goal. The Patriots actually played the ball past midfield only a handful of times and never got off a legitimate scoring opportunity. Goalkeeper Nick Araujo didn’t have to work too hard to collect his 17th shutout of the season. He was credited with making one save, but it certainly wasn’t a memorable one. That’s how dominant the Blue Tide’s play was in the midfield and their back line.

It marked the 10th time in 15 years that the Blue Tide captured a state sectional title under the tutelage of Rusek and his brother and assistant coach John Rusek. The Blue Tide were slated to face Section 1, Group I champion Waldwick in the overall state semifinals Wednesday at Indian Hills High School.

A win there would put the Blue Tide in place to capture the 27th overall state championship in the school’s rich and storied history. The Group I state title game is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at Kean University, with the scheduled starting time to be approximately 3 p.m.

First things first. The Blue Tide needs to beat Waldwick to move on.

The Blue Tide has fallen short of that overall state title in each of the last two years – something that the players definitely remember.

“This was just the first step,” Lakhrif said. “We want to win it all this year.”

“We’re going to do it this year,” Castro said. “I know it.”

“It’s a good feeling,” Rusek said. “We have 14 seniors on this team and they had not lost on this field since their freshman year in 2011 against Glen Ridge (in the state sectional title game). They enjoyed a lot of success on this field. They’ve been with us a long time. They deserve this.”

At the end of the game, Rusek managed to get his seniors on the field so they could be playing when the final few seconds ticked off.

“Every year, it’s a different feeling, but these kids have worked so hard,” Rusek said. “Things have seemed to fall into place for this team. We’re the last team in Hudson County to still be playing, so we’re very proud of that.”

Nutley girls’ soccer season ends in sectional title game

soccer

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When the high school girls’ soccer season began in earnest last August, Nutley High School head coach Mike DiPiano didn’t know what the future held.

After all, the Maroon Raiders graduated nine seniors from last year’s team that won 18 games and advanced to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III semifinals.

“I couldn’t let the kids know that I had doubts,” said DiPiano, who began his third season at Nutley. “I did have concerns. We graduated four defensive starters and a goaltender. I knew that we had goal scorers in (Victoria) Kealy and (Zoe) Steck, but I wondered could they score enough for us to win.”

No one could have ever imagined what would transpire in a span of just two months. The uncertainty of August became a championship run in November.

Although the season ended Friday with a tough loss to Roxbury in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championship game, the Maroon Raiders can walk away with their collective heads held high.

“We went further than any other team in school history,” said DiPiano, noting that the Maroon Raiders had never participated in a state sectional title game before Friday. “They all bought in and came together. They had sleepovers and movie nights. They had cookiebaking sessions, went pumpkin picking, apple picking and go-cart racing. They really made this team into a family. It was great to see.”

The Maroon Raiders finished the season 16-6, but three of those wins came in the state tournament, including a clutch win over West Morris in the sectional semifinals. West Morris was the team that eliminated the Maroon Raiders from the state tournament a year ago.

The team featured standout returnees in forwards Kealy (24 goals and 16 assists) and Steck (17 goals, 13 assists). Everything the Maroon Raiders did offensively was centered around the play of the two standouts.

Kealy, headed for Rider University on a scholarship, was once a defender at Nutley, but was moved up front and her entire life changed.

“She led by example,” DiPiano said of Kealy. “She played out of position as a freshman defender on a team that won three games. She did whatever we asked of her and did a great job as a leader.”

More importantly, Kealy leaves Nutley girls’ soccer with a legacy as the school’s all-time leading goal scorer, tallying an astounding 79 goals during her brilliant career.

“There were a lot of tears Friday and that’s understandable,” DiPiano said. “It was a tough day. But I let her know that she was one of the reasons why we were able to turn this thing around. She really had a great career.”

Kealy became the program’s second NCAA Division I player over the last three years, joining Natalie Melillo, who is at Troy University in Alabama and scored four goals there as a freshman this season.

“We feel we have players coming out of this program who can play at the next level,” DiPiano said.

When the time comes, Steck will become a major college player as well. Only a sophomore, Steck is already getting attention from Division I schools.

“We’re proud of that,” DiPiano said.

However, DiPiano should be most proud of the way his players developed this season.

When the season began, he had a goalkeeper who hadn’t played competitively in almost four years and had a host of underclassmen playing major roles in the defensive back line.

But junior Sarah Roselli emerged as the team’s goalkeeper, replacing last year’s Observer Co-Female Athlete of the Year Grace Montgomery. Roselli, who played tennis her first two years of high school, didn’t receive medical clearance to play soccer after suffering concussions as a middle school player, but DiPiano knew that Roselli could handle the responsibilities if healthy.

“I saw her play when she was younger and I knew if she could play, she would do fine,” DiPiano said.

Lauren Holden is a freshman who was given the responsibilities of being the team’s sweeper.

“I also saw her play when she was younger,” DiPiano said. “She comes from an athletic family (sister Emily is Nutley’s ace pitcher during softball season). Lauren is just a good soccer player. I knew she wouldn’t play like a freshman.”

Darby Fischer is a sophomore who became the team’s stopper.

“She was very tough,” DiPiano said. “Darby and Lauren Holden kept us together.”

Freshman Jela Small played both at defender and in the midfield.

“She’s a dynamic player,” DiPiano said. “She has a bright future.”

Senior Julie Fredericks, a first-year varsity starter, junior Melissa Alvarez and sophomore Angeli Bossibaly all did great jobs assisting the defensive backline that was once a question mark and evolved into the team’s strength.

Sophomore Jennifer Callaghan became a good ball distributor in the midfield. Senior Kaitlyn Salisbury and junior Sam Chimento were also major contributors in the midfield, along with Sarah Grueter and Maise Jelley.

They all molded well with the immense talents of Kealy and Steck up front, as potent a 1-2 scoring attack that could be found in northern New Jersey.

While the Maroon Raiders graduate a host of seniors, especially All-State candidate Kealy, the prospects look very good for the years to come, especially with Steck returning for two more soccer seasons.

“This team was a huge success story for the program, for the school and for the community,” DiPiano said. “I’m very proud of them. We won one state game two years ago, two last year and three this year. We’re moving in the right direction.”

If the progression remains the way it has been over the first three years of DiPiano’s regime, then a fourth win in the state playoffs should finally mean a state sectional title in 2015.

Lyndhurst’s great cross country season ends at Group championships

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

HOLMDEL – 

It had been a brilliant cross country season for the Lyndhurst High School boys’ team, one that culminated in the NJIC-Colonial Division championship and the second straight NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I title.

So when the Golden Bears took to the tough and treacherous course at Holmdel Park last Saturday for the overall Group I state championships, there was hope that the Bears could muster up yet another brilliant performance to move on to the NJSIAA Meet of Champions this weekend.

But it didn’t happen.

The Golden Bears didn’t get the performance they were hoping for and finished fourth, just missing on a berth in the M of C by a total of just nine points.

“We didn’t have our ‘A’ game today,” Lyndhurst head coach Michael Picardo said. “We knew we needed our best today and we didn’t get it.” Stephen Covello was the top Golden Bear runner, coming home in 14th place in 17:15.36. Teammate William Hooper was right behind in 15th place, clocked at 17.16.96. Dylan Stanco was next, earning 17th place in 17:19.14. The trio tried desperately to move up to make more of an impact, but it wasn’t to be.

“In the beginning, I got trapped in the back,” Covello said. “I couldn’t move. Going up the hill, it was pretty hard to get past anyone. I had to run on the edges, between the trees and everything. Once we got out of the woods, we had a lot of ground to catch up and it was hard. I was trying to go for it and couldn’t get there.”

Covello said that he was looking for his teammates as well.

“We tried to run as a pack,” Covello said. “Billy (Hooper), Stanco and I were all together. But I didn’t know where we were. Making up ground in a race like this with so many runners is really tough. We tried to push each other to the end.”

Hooper agreed.

“I think we all got out slow,” Hooper said. “At one point, I was like in 50th place as we entered the first mile. I tried to pass so many people, but it was so hard. I got tripped about five or six times because I’m so tall and have long legs. People were hitting me left and right. Once everyone got out, it was hard to catch up. We just couldn’t get past them.”

Andre Francisco was the next Golden Bear finisher, crossing the line in 30th place. Isaiah Aviles was 58th and Anthony Dell Aquila finished in 61st place.

Despite the disappointing finish, Picardo said that the team had a lot to be proud of.

“I’m very proud of what we accomplished,” Picardo said. “In fact, I’m ecstatic. Sure, this hurts right now, but I’m super proud. This is the greatest bunch of kids I’ve ever coached. I can’t ask for anything more. We’re a true team in every sense.”

The runners themselves realized how great of a season it was.

“I’m very proud of these guys,” Hooper said. “Four years of hard work definitely paid off. It’s not the way we wanted it to end, but we worked so hard to get to this point.”

Covello, the heart and soul of the team, agreed.

“This is heartbreaking,” Covello said. “It hurts. We wanted to go out and win this. But this one race doesn’t dictate what we did all year. I’m unbelievably proud of these guys. It’s been my honor to have run with them. I wouldn’t have changed things for the world. We won back-to-back state sectionals, the first time in the school’s history. I wouldn’t trade any one of these guys for anyone.”

Covello said that there will come a time when the pain of Saturday’s disappointment will fade away.

“I wanted to get one more chance to run with these guys,” Covello said. “It’s really heartbreaking. But we accomplished a lot and I know the guys next year are in good shape to do well again.”

There’s a program at Lyndhurst now. In years past, there were teams led by Patrick Rono, who was a physical presence, a sure-fire stud.

This year’s team wasn’t blessed with a ton of natural athleticism. There were no physical specimens, no physiques that would incite fear in opponents.

But the Golden Bears had a lot of heart and desire. More importantly, they were a team.

“That sums it all up,” Picardo said. “They were a team in the truest sense. I’ll remember this team forever.”

The Golden Bears will be immortalized for helping put the Lyndhurst cross country program on the map, thanks to the diligence of the senior leaders.

Lyndhurst wins NJSIAA cross country title again

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Golden Bears romp to 2nd straight North 2, Group I title

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer

Before the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I sectional cross country championships last Saturday at Greystone Park in Morris Plains, Lyndhurst High School head coach Michael Picardo thought that the Golden Bears had a solid chance to not only do well, but to dominate.

“I didn’t want to sound cocky, but I thought if we all brought our ‘A’ game, we were going to crush it,” Picardo said. “We ran lights out.”

Led by senior Stephen Covello, who finished second overall in 17:11.08, the Golden Bears had a parade of runners cross the finish line in succession.

Covello was second, followed by teammate William Hooper, then Dylan Stanco and finally Andre Francisco. One right after the other, second, third, fourth and fifth. All four runners are seniors, wanting to make sure that their final season is certainly a memorable one.

The dominating performance enabled the Golden Bears to secure their second straight state sectional title, easily outdistancing runner-up New Providence by almost 30 points.

Picardo said that the team followed the lead of Covello, who was nothing short of brilliant.

“Stephen is the heart and soul of this team,” Picardo said. “We were without him last year (because of a bout with mononucleosis). For him to come back this year and run this well, it’s amazing. He’s the focal point of this team. He personifies what cross country is all about. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he’s all heart and that’s what we are.”

Covello said that he didn’t pay attention to Jordan Price of New Providence, who won the race.

“I wasn’t really concerned about him,” Covello said. “I just had to get out and finish strong. I felt really good, so I decided to go for it. I just ran with the pack and we all pushed each other. I knew I had this in me. I just had to show it.”

Hooper was next, crossing the finish line in 17:14.40.

“I think running together was definitely the key,” Hooper said. “Everyone just got out so fast and we just stayed there. We kept telling each other that we had to stay in the group. It just all fell in line.”

Stanco was next, posting a time of 17:15.57.

“I never saw us run like that before,” Stanco said. “Just being together like that was incredible. I think we all ran 10 times faster because we ran as a team. It definitely means more to do it as a team.”

Francisco followed in fifth, finishing in 17:20.74. That’s four runners, all classmates, all teammates, all friends, finishing in a state sectional, one after another, in a span of just nine seconds. That’s it – just nine ticks apart.

“I think it shows how much we’ve bonded,” Francisco said. “The hard work finally paid off. It’s a great feeling, because it’s the first time in Lyndhurst High School history that a team won back-to-back state sectional championships. This was the hardest race ever.”

It was a tough race, because early on, both Hooper and Francisco slipped in the Greystone mud and fell.

“It meant more that we got up and finished,” Francisco said. “I tried hard to catch back up again.”

“I had no idea that they fell,” Picardo said. “They’re all heart and guts. Absolutely, we’re a team, first and foremost. We have a great pack of runners who stay together. Today was the best race our program has ever run. They bust their tails together. They’re lunch pail kids. They work hard and go to work. And they’re champions.”

The Golden Bears also received solid efforts from sophomore Xavier Locke, who was ninth overall in 17:42.07, junior Isaiah Aviles, who was 11th overall in 17:49.95 and junior Anthony Dell Aquila, who was 12th overall in 18:01.87.

“When I said I knew, I did,” Picardo said. “I knew what they were capable of.” It meant that all seven of the Golden Bears’ runners finished among the top 12 overall. Yes, that’s domination.

The Golden Bears now move on to the overall Group I state championships at Holmdel Park in Holmdel Saturday after; “Let’s see what happens there,” Picardo said.

The Lyndhurst girls finished fourth in North 2, Group I, led by Lindsary Cirne, who was 15th , and Alexis Gerbasio, who was 16th overall.

Kearny’s Vega finishes NYC Marathon

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Jason Vega experienced a life-changing year in 2010.

“I wanted to do something different,” said the 49-year-old Kearny resident. “I felt like I was getting old. My father passed away in 2009. I wanted to do something that my kids would be proud of.”

So Vega, an avid musician and guitar player who was once in a rock band, decided to become a marathon runner. Yes, just like that.

“I did a little running when I was in high school (at Christ the King in Middle Village in Queens, N.Y.),” Vega said. “But I quit during my freshman year. I put it in my head that I wanted to run a marathon for my kids (Danielle and stepson Nick Martinez).”

And Vega didn’t want to run just any other marathon.

“If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it on the biggest stage, namely New York,” said Vega, who handles receiving at a local food distributor. “When my father passed away, that was it for me. I was a two-pack- a-week cigarette smoker. I drank beer. I had to do something.”

Vega’s wife, Diane, was more than supportive in his quest.

“But she knew that no way it would happen,” Vega said.

When Vega began to train regularly, he certainly had his obstacles.

“I was horrible,” Vega said. “My mind was saying that I could do it. But my body was saying, ‘Oh, no.’ The first couple of miles, it was embarrassing. I needed to do it the right way.”

So Vega found a marathon training regimen that sneaker magnate Nike initiated.

“I followed the letter of the law,” Vega said. “I did everything that the program told me to do. I learned about the proper shoes to wear. I learned about the tools I needed.”

After following the 28-week routine, Vega felt like he was ready. So he applied to run in the New York City Marathon, entering the lottery for possible entrants. It was a shot in the dark, but Vega had the goal in mind.

“I set a goal and I had to see it through,” Vega said. “It took a lot just to get me going.” Vega eventually got the determination and got the approval to run in the NYC Marathon in 2010.

“I read my magazines and other resources,” Vega said. “I found a better way of eating. I became a pescadorian (which means Vega only eats fish one day a week). I found a root-based diet. As a runner, I started to improve. It was nothing to be proud of and was definitely ugly, but I kept going. I actually started feeling a lot better.”

However, disaster struck. Three weeks before the race, Vega suffered a strained Achilles tendon.

“I was doing some training on River Road and I felt a sharp pain in my leg,” Vega said. “I was hobbled bad, but I was determined.”

With the help of Kearny chiropractor and therapist Jim San Fillippo, Vega nursed the injury. “

Jimmy took care of it,” Vega said. “I thought that was it. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it. But Jimmy got me to the starting line.”

Vega said that the experience of running in 2010 was motivation to do it again.

“It was amazing,” Vega said. “You couldn’t imagine the amount of emotion I felt, all the things that go through someone’s head. You see all the people in the streets. It’s unbelievable.”

Vega had a host of supporters behind him, a group that he called “Team Vega.”

“Halfway through the race, I was feeling good, but then I was overwhelmed with emotion,” Vega said. “There was a whole bunch of Kearny people cheering me on. They bounced around from mile to mile. I had a huge support team.”

At one point, Vega thought he was done.

“It was around the 22-mile mark and I thought I was going to quit,” Vega said. “I hit the wall hard. I was ready to tap out. But then I saw my wife and kids and said I can’t do it. I couldn’t let them down.”

Vega finished the 2010 race in four hours, 46 minutes and 22 seconds.

“I remember seeing the finish line ahead of me and got a little boost of energy,” Vega said. “I did it.”

Vega was hooked. He was a marathoner.

He ran the Philadelphia Marathon in 2011 and Chicago in 2012. He also competed in the New Jersey Marathon in Long Branch.

But the goal was to get back into the New York City Marathon, where it all began.

“Lady Liberty beat me up bad the first time I ran it,” Vega said. “It was like she took her torch and beat me over the head with it.”

Vega didn’t apply to run the NYC Marathon the last two years, feeling fortunate that he didn’t get in two years ago after Hurricane Sandy did its local damage.

But two weeks ago, Vega was intent on being an entrant in this year’s race.

“I got an e-mail telling me that I was in,” Vega said. “Then I saw that $263 was withdrawn from my savings.”

That’s the entrance fee for the NYC Marathon these days. It costs a pretty penny to run the streets of New York.

“I’m dedicated,” Vega said. “This time, I left nothing to chance. I had a debt to settle with the race. I was going to do it again.”

Vega said that he trained five days a week, running anywhere between 30 and 40 miles a week.

“This time, I was ready,” Vega said.

Vega completed the 26.2 miles in four hours, 24 minutes and 30 seconds.

“I was so pumped,” Vega said. “I really wanted to break four hours. That was the goal. Once I started to see that slip away, then I really wanted to leave it all on the course. My time was pretty good for someone my age.”

Vega now has another goal in mind – namely the Boston Marathon.

“My kids are blown away,” Vega said. “They’ve inspired me to do more. Danielle, my daughter, wants to run with me. I’ll wait for them to finish or they’ll wait for me. But I’m not going to let them beat me.”

Vega’s next marathon will be in Long Branch in April, 2015.

“The ultimate goal now is to get to Boston,” Vega said.

Needless to say, Vega’s life has been altered over the last four years.

“No way could I have predicted this,” Vega said. “Not even close. I had no idea where the journey was going to take me. But I’m here now and loving it.”

And Vega might get his band back together as well.

“That would be something else altogether,” Vega said.

Harrison’s Lakhrif scores goals in bunches

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Over the years, the Harrison High School boys’ soccer program has been almost like the United Nations of high school sports.

The Blue Tide has featured players from practically all over the globe, especially those with South American heritage.

Last year, the team’s best player, All-State defender Modou Sowe, originated from Africa.

Now, this year’s premier goal scorer, Ali Lakhrif, comes from Morocco.

“He moved to Harrison in the middle of his sophomore year,” said veteran Harrison boys’ soccer coach Mike Rusek. “The season had already ended. I keep a soccer ball in my closet and I brought it out into the hallway to see if he could kick it around. I realized that Ali could speak four languages.”

But the one language that Lakhrif spoke the best was the universal tongue of soccer.

“When John (Rusek, Mike’s assistant coach and brother) and I first started out, Harrison was like the melting pot, because we got kids from all over the place. But Ali said he was from Morocco and that was a first for us.”

It didn’t take long for Mike Rusek to realize that Lakhrif was a special player.

“When the weather got nicer, Ali was taken to (the famed Harrison) Courts to play,” Rusek said. “After seeing him every day, I said to John, ‘I think we have a find here.’ I didn’t see him on the big field, but I saw that he had some good ball skills.”

When Lakhrif’s family moved to Harrison from Morocco, Ali had no idea of the town’s rich soccer background. But he soon found out.

“I came here and wanted to play soccer,” said Lakhrif, who speaks French, Spanish, Moroccan and English. “I wanted to do well wherever we came to, but when I found out about the soccer here, I was very happy about it.”

Lakhrif fit in well with the Blue Tide and scored 15 goals, including the lone goal against Kearny in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals.

“I thought that if I scored that many last year, I could get more this year,” Lakhrif said. But no one could have ever imagined the impact that Lakhrif would have this season with the Blue Tide.

After scoring three goals in the Blue Tide’s 11-0 win over Bloomfield Tech last Thursday in the first round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state tournament, Lakhrif now has 33 goals, which ties the single season school record for goals. Leo Bodasian had 33 goals in 1973.

Imagine all the great players that have come through the storied Harrison program over the years. Lakhrif has now scored more goals in a season than all but one of them.

“We’ve had some kids get into the 20s and even 30s,” Rusek said. “That’s a special and Tony Dominguez had 30. Harrison is traditionally one of the better soccer programs. Ali has now tied the record. It’s incredible.”

For his efforts, Lakhrif has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

“He’s just a very hard worker,” Rusek said of Lakhrif. “He does all the little drills to get better. Every time he steps onto the field, he’s giving 100%. It’s nice to see that hard work get rewarded. It’s like watching a young professional. He’s such a tough competitor. He has that drive that you don’t see often.”

Lakhrif is also a very unselfish player. He’s collected 19 assists as well this season.

“He’s a forward for us, but I think on the next level, he’ll wind up in the midfield,” Rusek said. “He’s a good student, so he’ll go on to college. He’s still looking at schools right now. Very quietly, he’s scored 33 goals. You don’t hear a lot about him.”

The Blue Tide scored 135 goals this season, the most in Rusek’s coaching career. A lot of that scoring production is because of the Moroccan import.

“I’m all for the team,” Lakhrif said. “It’s not just for me. I think I’ve been in the right place at the right time. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I hope to go far in college. I got very lucky to come to Harrison.”

Needless to say, Rusek is pleased with Lakhrif’s production.

“I am pleasantly surprised with what he’s done,” Rusek said. “I was hoping that he could get 20 goals. Well, if we keep playing, he might get double that.”

The Blue Tide was set to face New Providence after press time Monday in the sectional semifinals.

“I’m more than happy with Ali’s production,” Rusek said. “I think we underplay just how talented of a player he really is.”

The record books at Harrison High School will now tell it all, because with one more goal, Ali Lakhrif becomes the all-time single season record holder. That’s a legacy to last forever.