One day’s soccer sojourn into night … Local teams try desperately to stay alive in NJSIAA state playoffs

It’s one thing for a local sports writer to attempt to stay atop the ongoings of our beloved high school soccer teams.

It’s another when the NJSIAA schedules all the locals to play their respective games on the same day. That is downright maddening to try to connect just a little of each team and each game in a clear, concise and timely fashion, making sure that you don’t slight one team or write about one team more than another. In this case, fairness is right there next to godliness.

So last Thursday, as the NJSIAA moved its state soccer tournaments toward the sectional quarterfinal round, we ventured to try to see three local boys’ soccer teams hitting their respective pitches right around the same time. Needless to say, it was borderline insanity. Especially when one is operating with a bad wheel – and we don’t mean on the car.

The first stop of the afternoon was the 2 p.m. kickoff between Harrison and Caldwell in the quarterfinals of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II bracket. The Blue Tide were the No. 2 seed in that section and other than the loss to Kearny in the Hudson County Tournament finals last week at Red Bull Arena, the Tide hadn’t dropped a contest since Sept. 25, when they fell to Newark East Side. The Blue Tide were like a well-oiled machine going in and were facing a Caldwell team that was under .500 at 8-12-1 and lost five of six matches prior to facing Harrison.

“We felt like we approached it well,” said Harrison veteran head coach Mike Rusek. “We approached the game well and scouted them. We knew we were in pretty good shape as a team and after the first 10 minutes, I felt like we were in the driver’s seats.”

However, Caldwell scored a goal in the 12th minute of the match and was fortunate enough to have that goal stand up. The Blue Tide saw their incredible season come to an end at home, losing 1-0 to finish the 2021 campaign with a 17-4-1 record, but it’s a sting that won’t soon go away.

“We had 24 shots at goal and couldn’t make one,” said Rusek, whose team outshot Caldwell by a 24-3 margin. “Our plan was correct in terms of passing the ball and moving forward with the ball. We just didn’t do a good job finishing. Overall, we played a good game, but we just didn’t score.”

Rusek was asked if the Blue Tide was guilty of perhaps looking past a sub-.500 team.

“We’re not accustomed to that,” Rusek said. “We didn’t want to look past anyone. It’s a disappointing way for the season to end. We thought we had a team that was capable of making a run. But these state playoffs were over before they really started. We were really happy with the way we were playing going into the state tournament. We just didn’t score.”

And yes, that is an important aspect to any sport. You seriously cannot win if you don’t score. The Blue Tide were kept off the scoreboard. It’s a disappointing, heartbreaking way to lose, especially come state playoff time. The way the Blue Tide played in the first three weeks of October, they looked invincible. It’s hard to say whether the loss to the archrivals down Davis Avenue had anything to do with their lackluster performance in the state tournament. But something happened and the Blue Tide and the coaching staff have about 320 days to ponder that.

Now, the second trip of the day was to Lyndhurst’s Recreation facility to see the Golden Bears playing host to Lodi in the quarterfinals of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II playoffs, a game that was won by Lyndhurst, 2-1, thanks to two goals from The Observer’s Athlete of the Week Enrique Mutsoli, who padded his incredible state-leading scoring total to 39 with his two goals.

Mutsoli’s tale has been one of extraordinary emotion, coming back from a torn ACL in order to lead the state in scoring. It was a classic showdown and puts the Golden Bears in the state sectional semifinals against top-seeded Bernards in the sectional semifinals.

This has been an incredible story of comebacks, first Mutsoli from injury and then coach Emad Abu Hakmeh, who returned to coaching high school soccer after a 12-year respite from his days coaching at nearby North Arlington. If the Golden Bears could somehow pull a rabbit out of the hat and defeat Bernards, then everyone can do a victory dance along with former coach Denis Jelcic, who is in Croatia these days taking care of his family’s business. You can be rest assured that Jelcic was following that game somehow someway on the Internet.

It was a great day for Lyndhurst soccer in a season of great days. Whatever transpired against Bernards shouldn’t persuade people’s emotions. The Golden Bears deserve a parade of some sorts for what they have achieved this season.

Finally, there was the final step on the sojourn to Kearny High School’s field where the Kardinals, fresh off their exciting overtime win in the Hudson County Tournament finale against Harrison, were playing host to perennial state playoff rival Montclair and came away with a 2-0 win for their 13th straight win of the season to improve to a stellar 18-1-1.

The Kards were set to face Passaic in the sectional semifinals on Monday.

Head coach Bill Galka has to like the way the Kards have been playing all season, but really loves the balance the team possesses. Seven players have 10 goals or more. It’s unheard of scoring balance.

Galka said that his team is well aware of the severity of the state playoffs.

“They know that every single practice could be their last one,” Galka said. “The seniors are well aware. We have performed pretty well. But we have to keep playing well. If we play to our potential, we can keep going. We’re facing a good Passaic team with good soccer players. They’re technically sound. We’re going to go out and battle. It’s not a physical team like we’ve played. We just have to get ready for the next opponent without overlooking them. We know what’s ahead of us.”

The winner gets the winner of West Orange and Clifton in the sectional championship Thursday afternoon. Both of those teams know Kearny well.

“We know that they’re both quality teams,” Galka said. “We are looking forward to it.”

And looking forward to another afternoon of soccer traveling, which is much better than the alternative at this point of the season. That means staying home. Let’s get on the pitch any day.




Harrison’s Diego Flores moves up the field against Caldwell in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group 2 quarterfinals last week at Harrison High School. The Blue Tide suffered a 1-0 loss, ending their season prematurely. Photo by Jim Hague


Lyndhurst’s Ali Celik (10) works to get the ball away from two Lodi defenders during the Golden Bears 2-1 win over the Rams last Friday. Photo by Jim Hague

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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.”