By Jim Hague
There’s nothing like the championship season in high school soccer. The intensity builds with every play. The fans get to a fever pitch and the players can actually
taste the tension. It creates an atmosphere not found in any other local sport.
And it was definitely evident over the weekend, especially with the NJSIAA state and Hudson County Tournaments taking center stage.
On Friday and Sunday, both Harrison High School’s field and Kearny’s Harvey Field were locations of such passion and emotion, as both fields were the setting for both the state and county tournaments.
On Friday, it was a tripleheader of success for the local teams, as the Kearny girls started the day at Harvey Field with a very physically demanding North Jersey Section
1, Group IV quarterfinal contest against West Orange, a game the Kardinals won, 2-1, thanks to a highlight-film variety goal from Stefanie Gomes with about five minutes to play. Brianne Nieto also scored for Kearny.
Almost at the same time, the Harrison boys were defeating a very stubborn North Arlington squad, 2-0, in their first round North Jersey Section 2, Group I state playoff game at Harrison High. Joao Conceicao and Michael Barbosa scored for the Blue Tide.
Then, it was time to hop back to Harvey, where the Kearny boys were defeating Montclair, 2-0, to advance in the North Jersey Section I, Group IV bracket. Junior Batista and Abdellah Bouzidi each scored a goal in the win.
However, on Sunday, the success rate was not the same, as both the Harrison and Kearny boys’ teams, perhaps anticipating a rematch in the title game, both lost shockingly in the Hudson County tourney semifinals.
The Kearny boys lost to upstart Union City, 1-0, in their semifinal, knocking the top-seeded and defending champion Kardinals out of the tourney. Harrison, the third seed, lost to St. Peter’s Prep, 1-0, in the other semifinal match.
Harrison coach Mike Rusek was not sure whether both teams were looking ahead to a
possible rematch of the two neighboring rivals.
“It’s always on your mind, but we played a very good team in St. Peter’s,” Rusek
said. “We gave it everything we have. It was a really good game. We had some scoring
chances. I can’t say we didn’t play well.”
However, the Kearny girls did manage to play well on Sunday, defeating St. Dominic
Academy of Jersey City, 3-0, to capture their third straight Hudson County Tournament championship.
Mercedes Lois, Ashleigh Amadeo and Melisssa Pineda all scored goals for the Kardinals, who won for the 20th time this season against just three losses.
Kearny girls’ head coach Vin Almeida was a little concerned about how his team
would do, especially after seeing the boys get stunned by Union City.
“It was very shocking,” Almeida said. “I was worried about having a little hangover after the big win against West Orange. It was very dangerous, facing St. Dominic, a team that we beat only 2-1 the first time we played them. So we were concerned about the possibility of being flat. It was a little scary. There (the boys’ team loss) was proof that anything could happen.”
But the Kardinals took care of business and won the county trophy for a third straight year.
“I give credit to the girls for staying focused and having the discipline needed to stay
successful,” Almeida said. “I was concerned about them coming back and not being
focused, but they picked it up from the start.”
Almeida said that winning a third straight county crown is something to behold, simply because you can never predict what might happen during the championship season.
“If you let someone stay in the game, after a while, it gets scary,” Almeida said. “But our girls wouldn’t let that happen.”
Almeida credits the play of his seniors who carried the team down the stretch.
“Ashleigh Amadeo has done a great job,” Almeida said. “Mercedes Lois has been exceptional. Stefanie’s goal against West Orange was just incredible. Sometimes, she
just wows you with the things she does. At any point of the game, she can strike a dagger into the opponent. It really looked like an impossible angle, but she nailed it. It was incredible.”
Almeida also credited the play of Haley Durning, who has been unflappable in net.
Durning, who started the season as a forward, managed to convince Almeida to become a goalie.
“It’s amazing in today’s day and age to find someone so unselfish to want to stand up and say she could be the goalie,” Almeida said. “She saw that we had a need and she was the one who suggested it. She’s been fantastic and keeps getting better and better each day.”
All three teams live on in the state tournament. The Kearny girls were slated to face Livingston Monday afternoon, which meant that they would have played three games in four days.
“We were hoping to face Livingston on Tuesday, but that didn’t work out,” Almeida said. “Sometimes, things in life just don’t work out. We gave them the day off on Saturday to let them try to recuperate, because they do need rest. We have to go with the flow, even when times are tough.”
The Kearny boys were set to face West Orange in the North 1, Group IV semifinals on
Tuesday. The same for Harrison, facing Whippany Park in the North 2, Group I semis.
“We’re still right on pace to contend for a state championship,” Rusek said. “It’s what
we always hope to do. If we play with the same intensity we had against St. Peter’s, we should be alright.”
Intensity. Championship season soccer. Those two terms are almost synonymous, certainly in these parts. No better proof than last Friday, with three championship-style do-or-die playoff games were played about a quarter-mile apart in two soccer-rabid locations.