By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Before his team faced Leonia for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championship Friday afternoon, Harrison head boys’ soccer coach Mike Rusek had a little bit of apprehension.
After all, the Blue Tide was going to have to face Leonia minus the team’s best player, senior defender and do-everything Modou Sowe, as well as starting forward Ali Lachgar.
Plus, the game would mark the third time this season that the Blue Tide had faced Leonia, a regular opponent in the NJIC-Liberty Division.
“We were without two guys who have been starters all year long,” Rusek said. “Modou is the MVP of the team and Ali is a key forward. And since we saw that West Orange had just beaten Montclair in the (Group IV) state playoffs after Montclair beat them twice, I was concerned. You hear stories like that all year. They always say the third one is the toughest.”
Thanks to three goals from sophomore reserve forward Cristian Marquez, the Blue Tide steamrolled Leonia, 4-0, to capture yet another state sectional title.
The win enabled the Blue Tide (22-0-1) to move forward in pursuit of possibly yet another overall Group II state championship.
With the win, the Blue Tide was now scheduled to face Newton in the overall Group II semifinals at Ridge High School Tuesday. If the Blue Tide wins that game, then they would advance to the overall Group II title game Sunday at 10 a.m. at The College of New Jersey.
Rusek said that his senior class was extremely motivated to play the game Friday.
“I have 11 seniors on the team and seven of them are starters,” Rusek said. “I told them that this was their last game on their home field. So we wanted to make sure that the seniors went out as winners on their field.”
So that’s what the Blue Tide did, scoring early to take command of the game.
“We haven’t lost a game at home since November of 2011,” Rusek said. “We really like playing at home.”
That was an idea that wasn’t lost on the seniors.
“We have to have the philosophy that we’re going to win at home,” senior forward Leonardo Trujillo said. “We wanted to show we have a good team. I think with the team we have, we have very good players who can fill in when needed.”
None more obvious than Marquez, who made the most of his rare start.
“He had been playing in games,” said Rusek of Marquez, who had tallied eight goals and had seven assists in reserve duty this season. “We think he’s going to be our offensive center midfielder next year. He just hadn’t had the opportunity this year. I thought he would be just another midfielder for us. I certainly didn’t expect him to score three goals.”
Rusek said that Marquez just happened to be in the right place at the right time for the first two goals, but on the third and final tally, he was dead on.
“He has the ability to get open in the box,” Rusek said. “He’s also a good finisher. The third goal, he hit a nice shot and nailed it. Let’s just say that he had opportunistic goals.”
Senior Jose Neto scored the fourth goal, the 26th of the season. Neto also had two assists on two of Marquez’s goals.
“A great program should be able to suffer obstacles and still win,” Rusek said. “We just picked up where the others left off.”
Rusek was not sure if Sowe would be able to play in the state semifinals. He’s battling a torn tendon in his toe.
“He’s a great leader on and off the field,” Rusek said. “You should have seen him during the game Friday. He was so into it and wished he was with us on the field. I hope he can play.”
Rusek has to love what he’s getting defensively.
“We’ve played four state tournament games and we’ve had four shutouts,” Rusek said. “The national record for shutouts in a season is 21 and we have 19 now.”
Which means if the Blue Tide wins the last two games and don’t allow a goal, they would tie a national record set by St. Benedict’s Prep.
“It is possible,” Rusek said. Junior Nick Araujo has been the net minder collecting those clean sheets. Twin brothers Rodrigo and Marcel Esquivel have been diligent with their play along the back line.
Trujillo said that the Blue Tide is extremely motivated to capture the state title.
“This shows that we have a good team,” Trujillo said. “We’ve now won the state sectional two years in a row. But we want more. I care so much about this team. It’s been a pleasure for me to be a part of this program. There were a lot of Harrison teams to win state championships. We want to show people we can win it, too.”
There were 14 state championships since the NJSIAA state playoffs began in the 1970s. The ingredients are certainly there for No. 15.
“We want to keep it going,” Trujillo said.
“Every coach at the beginning of the season sets goals on what they want to accomplish,” Rusek said. “But these kids believed in it. I never realized the heart of the kids. I always knew that they were talented kids, but they fought through a lot to win this. I’m really proud of them.”
Proud to be state sectional champions – once again.