Recap: Kearny boys wins thrilling state sectional soccer title

Jim Hague photo

The Kearny High School boys’ soccer team captured the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship last Thursday in thrilling fashion, when senior forward Aiden Mansilla’s goal in the 10th minute of overtime gave the Kardinals a 2-1 victory over West Orange, giving the Kards their first state title since 2017.

The Kardinals (20-1-1) moved on to the overall Group IV state semifinals against Elizabeth, the Section 2, Group IV champions, in a match that was scheduled to be played at Kearny Tuesday night.

If the Kards emerged victorious against Elizabeth, then they would face the winner of the South Jersey Group IV semifinal between Toms River North and Freehold Township for the overall Group IV state crown Saturday at Kean University in Union. The time of the Group IV finale has yet to be determined.

The Kardinals will be shooting for a record 33rd state championship dating back to 1922.

Kearny head coach Bill Galka felt that he had the makings of a solid team when the season kicked off in September.

“We had a lot of seniors coming back,” Galka said. “We were hopeful that this was the year. We had a lot of experience, a good veteran group.”

But the Kardinals, the top seed in the section, didn’t have an easy road to secure the state sectional crown, considering that they had to defeat perennial state powers Montclair and West Orange to get there. The North Section 1, Group IV is considered to be the toughest public school sectional in New Jersey.

“We told them that they were going to have to face tough competition and that we could never take any game lightly,” Galka said.

Facing West Orange was a challenge, considering that the Mountaineers (19-5) were a bigger and stronger team.

“They like to play a physical game,” Galka said. “We saw them play against Clifton and we saw that they were going to be difficult to play.”

And the Mountaineers drew first blood by scoring a goal just two minutes into the game. Francisco Soca scored for the Mountaineers, giving West Orange the early 1-0 lead.

“We just had to stop the bleeding,” Galka said. “We couldn’t let them score again. Sometimes, it’s hard to do that, but we didn’t panic. We knew that the game hadn’t been decided yet.”

West Orange held the advantage into halftime.

“We might have been losing, but we weren’t really worried,” said senior striker Juan Rojas. “We were playing really well. I knew it was just a matter of time before we scored.”

Rojas was right, because he was pulled down in the penalty area midway through the second half and was awarded a penalty kick.

“My plan was to hit it low,” Rojas said of the free kick. “I never get nervous when I take a penalty kick. I just try to shoot it hard.”

Rojas’ shot eluded West Orange goalkeeper Justin Scavalla for the equalizer.

The game remained that way through a tense second half, only thanks to Kearny goalie Joshua Rodriguez making two big consecutive saves in the closing minutes of regulation. Rodriguez stopped the initial shot and when the rebound escaped the Kearny defense, Rodriguez had to come up huge once again to punch aside another close scoring attempt.

“If they got another one there, it would have been very tough for us,” Galka said. “Josh got hurt earlier, but came back in and made those saves to keep us alive.”

As the match went to the golden goal overtime, the confidence was there for the Kardinals. They also had help from a higher power.

“All week in practice I prayed,” said standout defender Alan Castillo, who has enjoyed an All-State caliber season. “Every night before I went to bed, I prayed. During the game, I prayed.”

So did Rojas. He prayed for another reason.

“All week long, I was sick,” Rojas said. “I was worried that I might not be able to play. I prayed to God to get me healthy to help my team.”

Rojas did exactly that. He obviously recovered enough to play and in the overtime, the team’s leading scorer performed magic once again.

“I saw the defender watch the ball bounce,” Rojas said. “I just got it front of it, stopped it with my heel and headed it forward. I touched it forward and saw Aidan coming forward and he just tapped it in.”

Mansilla’s goal set off a frenzy at a packed Kearny High Stadium, with about 1,500 fans in attendance.

It was Mansilla’s 13th goal of the season. Incredibly, the Kardinals have seven players who have scored 10 or more goals. It’s impeccable scoring balance. Rojas scored 22 goals in a shortened season last year, but he sacrificed the goal scoring to provide good passes to his teammates. Rojas has 13 assists this season.

“It meant a lot to contribute to a state sectional championship,” Rojas said. “I feel that this year it has been harder for me to score goals, but if I can help with giving assists, then that’s fine.”

“There has never been an ego problem with this team,” Galka said. “Juan is very happy to assist on goals and has done very well this year. I think that’s the sign of a good team when so many kids are contributing, especially in the tough games. The team is the star of this team. There isn’t one player.”

Galka applauded the efforts of Castillo, who has earned his place in Kearny soccer folklore.

“He hasn’t taken a bad step all year,” Galka said of Castillo. “He’s skillful and reads the game well. He’s one of the best center backs we’ve ever had.”

Castillo said that he went to a lot of the games during the 2017 state championship run.

“I was in eighth grade and wanted to someday get a chance to win a state championship like that team,” Castillo said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about this.”

Now, the Kardinals are two wins away from winning yet another state crown.

“It means a lot to get a shot to be here,” Rojas said. “It’s been four years. I know how big it is to the people of Kearny.”

“It’s been so enjoyable,” Galka said. “I think we could go another month if we had to. I told the kids to enjoy it, enjoy every practice. You can see that they’re doing that. It’s been a fantastic season, but we want to finish it the right way. We have to beat a good Elizabeth team, a good skilled team like us.”

But only one of these teams comes from a place known as “Soccertown, USA.”

It’s almost destiny that Kearny should be a state champion again.

Learn more about the writer ...

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.”