Harrison’s Lachgar finds his way and makes finale memorable

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.

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