It’s one thing for the Kearny High School soccer teams – both boys’ and girls’ squads – to advance to their respective Hudson County Tournament championship games.
After all, both the Kardinal boys and girls were the respective top seeds in the county tourney.
But no one in their wildest dreams would have thought where the championship games would be played.
Yes, dream upon dreams, the Kardinals will play in a championship doubleheader at the Mecca of local soccer pitches, namely Red Bull Arena in Harrison.
The Kearny girls will face North Bergen in the county tourney title game at 5 p.m. Thursday, followed by the showdown of showdowns, the Kearny boys, the No. 7-ranked team in the entire state of New Jersey, facing archnemesis Harrison, at 7:30 p.m.
Can you believe it?
“I never expected it,” said Kearny head boys’ soccer coach Bill Galka. “The kids were definitely excited when they learned.”
“We’re just excited,” Kearny head girls’ soccer coach Mike Sylvia. “Red Bull Arena is a special place. We haven’t been there in a while. I heard that we had a chance to play there. When it became official, we were all really excited.”
Once Kearny advanced to the boys’ title game, a neutral site was needed to play. The first option was a frightful one, albeit a good field, but…
“We heard it was going to be Lincoln Park (in Jersey City),” Galka said. “I wondered why were we going there. I never even thought of Red Bull Arena. It was more than a pleasant surprise.”
“What’s great is that the Red Bulls are giving us a chance to play there,” Sylvia said. “It means so much to us.”
Both Kearny teams hit the tourney title match in great position.
The boys are totally clicking. They still rely on striker Juan Rojas to lead the way, but recently, they have received scoring from people like Alejandro Alvarado and Cristian Escandon to add some scoring punch. Both Alvarado and Escandon have tallied the three-goal hat trick in the last week alone.
“You don’t want to rely on one guy,” Galka said. “It’s even better when we have three or four guys who can score. We’re thrilled with that. We’re much better when we have a bunch of guys.”
Rojas still leads the Kardinals (15-1-1) with 15 goals and 10 assists, but Alvarado has 13 goals. Escandon, the younger brother of former New Jersey Player of the Year Jose Escandon, currently playing at NJIT, has eight goals and 12 assists.
But the Kardinals have also received nine goals each from Aiden Mansilla, Alan Antonelli and Johan Baez, who has also added 11 assists.
That’s an incredible total of players who have knocked home at least eight goals.
And it doesn’t end there. Nicolas Gomez and Dalton Davila have seven goals apiece.
“It certainly is a balanced team,” Galka said. “When we play well, we don’t have to look for Juan (Rojas).”
Galka is also pleased with the defensive effort, which includes goalkeeper Joshua Rodriguez and backup Alex Cruz.
The defenders are three-year players Alan Castillo and Daniel Velazquez along with Michael Reis and Gerald Cohetero.
“They don’t get any of the glory,” Galka said of his defenders. “They’ve been playing well. It’s important, because we might only get a few chances going forward. We might have to play good defense in the big games. We have good experience back there.”
The Kardinal girls (8-5-2) are led by Abby Crispin, who has tallied nine goals and added nine assists.
“I knew she was a creative playmaker, but she’s doing even more than I expected,” Sylvia said of Crispin, whose older sister Amber is a former Observer Female Athlete of the Year. “She’s been getting big goals in our big games. She’s what you want in a senior captain.”
Paige Raefski also has nine goals for the Kardinals and Emily Horvaht has added eight. Gabriela Schivel has tallied seven goals, as has talented defender Maci Covello.
“It’s been a collective effort,” Sylvia said.
So has the defensive unit, with goalkeeper Aracely Vazquez leading the way, but Gabby Matias has been seeing a lot of action in the county tournament.
The defensive unit of Maci Covello (one of the best center backs in the state), Carley Natosi, Mariana Martins and Andrea Toledo have been rock solid.
“We have a super back line,” Sylvia said. “They’ve proven to be where we’re comfortable.”
The Kardinals already have a 3-0 victory over North Bergen to build upon.
“We have a lot of respect for them,” Sylvia said. “They like to press the issue. You never know what could happen. We’re just excited to be there for sure. We’ve been dealing with nerves all season, but this team shows up in big moments.”
Needless to say, it should be a great day for Kearny soccer, the first time the Kardinals have graced Red Bull Arena since 2015.
“This just fell in line,” Galka said of playing at Red Bull Arena. “It’s like a gift to the kids. Our players will be excited to play. Once they get on the field, they’ll be ready. I’m just glad we’re playing Harrison there Thursday night. Our kids still can’t believe they’re playing there.”
Kearny midfielder Alejandro Alvarado has become a solid second scorer for the Kardinal boys’ soccer team. Photo by Jim Hague
Kearny center midfielder Abby Crispin has become the leading scorer for the Kardinal girls’ soccer team. Photo by Jim Hague
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.