The local high school soccer season came to an end last Tuesday, a few days too soon for Harrison and Kearny.
If the soccer gods were kind, then they would have allowed the Blue Tide and the Kardinals to play for a few more days, getting to their respective state championship games.
But the Blue Tide fell a little short to Newton in the NJSIAA Group II semifinals and the Kardinals dropped a heartbreaker to Scotch Plains in the Group IV semis, ending all hope of having an overall state title in New Jersey’s soccer hotbed and heartland.
But there’s nothing to be ashamed of, as both teams secured their respective state sectional championship the week prior _ the Blue Tide winning North 2, Group II and the Kards taking home their first state sectional crown, winning North 1, Group IV, in six years.
And both teams have a lot to look forward to in the years to come, considering both went further than anyone could have imagined when practices began last August.
“Going into the season, I didn’t know what to expect,” said veteran Kearny head coach Bill Galka. “We had a lot of new players coming in. We didn’t know the chemistry. It took some time to see where the team is at.”
It was especially tough considering that the Kardinals were undefeated all season going into the state playoffs and held the No. 1 ranking in the state in the process.
“We were ranked No. 1, so that means teams were playing us harder,” Galka said. “The expectations were high. We had one of our strongest teams. We just got unlucky.”
The Kardinals had won 40 straight games before falling in the state sectional semifinals a year ago. It could have been a devastating loss all around.
“I don’t care if we’re state ranked at all,” Galka said. “I don’t put that much into it. I just knew that this year we would probably lose games here and there, but we could learn from losing. After having two undefeated seasons in a row, we were bound to lose a couple.”
The Kardinals did, but won when it mattered, winning four straight in the state playoffs to bring home the second sectional title in Galka’s career.
“We didn’t expect it coming in,” Galka said. “But we won the sectional title. And we had a chance to be in the finals. So it’s not too bad.”
At Harrison, veteran coach Mike Rusek isn’t bemoaning what took place last week. He’s not pleased with losing in the state semifinals and was hoping for the chance to pad the state record of 15 state championships.
“I think there is a little bit of mixed emotions, happy and sad,” Rusek said. “This team exceeded expectations, no doubt, but the way the game (against Newton) went along, we thought we had a shot. But we lost a player to a red card (forcing the Blue Tide to play nearly the entire second half down a man), so that was tough.”
The Blue Tide started the season by winning the first 11 games.
“When we were 11-0, I didn’t think we were that good,” Rusek said. “We were lucky to win some of the games.”
Then, in one week in early October, the Blue Tide lost three straight games. It was the first time in the tenure of the Ruseks (head coach Mike and assistant coach and brother John) that the Blue Tide had lost three in a row.
“I didn’t think we were that bad when we lost three straight,” Rusek said. “I think we had to find a common ground.”
The Blue Tide recovered to win nine straight, to reach 20 wins, to get the state sectional title.
“After we lost in the county (to Dickinson of Jersey City), we looked to take the sectional,” Rusek said. “We took it in steps.”
Rusek loses three senior starters to graduation in Josh Seebeck, Michael Sousa, who ended up scoring 14 goals this season, and defender J.P. Lara.
But the rest of the team returns next year.
“I am looking forward to see what next year brings,” Rusek said. “I think this team will come back with a chip on their shoulders. I think we’ll be OK. This was a bit of a tough season for everyone, the coaches and players. We did stick it out and fought through it. I didn’t think it was in the cards, but we fought hard to get a state sectional.”
“We’ll be in good shape with three sophomores and five seniors coming back,” Rusek said.
The same can be said for the Kardinals, who has a slew of sophomores returning.
“We have a good nucleus,” Galka said. “We had six sophomores who played and that’s good to have. Being such a young group, I think we’ll be able to make up what we lose. But you can never truly expect because it’s not easy these days. We’ll be somewhat of an underdog next year. But underdogs fight to the end. We can show what good chemistry does for a team. The team had good team spirit behind them and that helped. We weren’t far from the state title.”
Neither team was. Both were right there _ and came up a little short. It happens, especially in the state playoffs in soccer. For Kearny and Harrison to be right there was impressive. Now, just wait and see what happens next year.
And maybe next year, just maybe, the two teams will actually face each other. Now, wouldn’t that be special?
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”