Kearny wins overall NJSIAA Group IV soccer title with 6-2 win over Freehold Township

The Kearny High School boys’ soccer team celebrates after defeating Freehold Township, 6-2, to win the NJSIAA Group IV state championship Saturday at Kean University, marking the 33rd time Kearny has won a state soccer title and the first one since 2017. Jim Hague photo

They don’t call Kearny “Soccertown, USA” for nothing.

Especially after the drama of the past week, when the Kearny High School boys’ soccer team advanced to the overall NJSIAA Group IV state championship game Saturday afternoon, four days after perhaps the most thrilling and exhilarating victory in the Kardinals’ rich and storied program.

The Kardinals were headed toward certain imminent defeat against former perennial foe Elizabeth in the Group IV semifinals last Tuesday, coming back from a two-goal deficit to miraculously tie the match with 1:01 remaining in regulation, then winning the contest in the fifth round of the tie-lbreaking penalty kick phase of the game to move on to face Freehold Township in the overall Group IV state title game Saturday.

Once the Kards got to the Group IV championship game Saturday afternoon at Kean University, they unleashed an offensive explosion on the Patriots, a barrage that became almost synonymous with the Kards, scoring six goals for incredibly the ninth time in 24 matches during the season.

Led by the team’s leading scorer Juan Rojas, who scored two goals and added two assists, the Kardinals never trailed and rolled to a 6-2 victory, giving the Kardinals (22-1-1) the overall Group IV state championship.

It marked the 33rd time dating back to 1923 that Kearny won its respective state championship and the first time since 2017. Prior to 2017, the Kardinals also won state titles in 1999, 2002 and 2004.

It was also the second state title for current head coach Bill Galka.

“The first one was a little more stressful,” Galka said. “This one was a little more enjoyable. We received a lot of support from the town from people who came to watch us and others who watched online.”

And when the Kardinals’ team bus arrived back in Kearny after the win, they received pua police escort along Kearny Avenue, complete with flashing lights and sirens.

“Believe me, we appreciate all the supporters who took time from their busy days to come and honor us,” Galka said.

For all intents and purposes, the dream of adding another state crown should have died on the Kearny High field Tuesday.

The Kardinals surrendered the first two goals of the match to the upstart Minutemen, who held control of the match from the five-minute mark on.

After Rojas added a penalty kick with 20 minutes remaining, the lead was sliced in half and gave the Kards some sense of hope.

But when a Kardinal defender received a red card ejection with three minutes left, the Kards were forced to play the remainder of the game down two men – an almost unthinkable daunting task.

Miraculously, the Kardinals got the equalizer from Rojas with just 61 seconds in regulation and after both teams went scoreless in the extra sessions, they went to penalty kicks with Dalton Davila nailing the deciding kick, sending the Kards improbably to the state title game.

“That was crazy,” Rojas said. “To come from two goals down like that? Just crazy. But I never lost faith.”

The Kardinals were not about to let that happen again.

“We came out sharp and ready to play,” Rojas said.

At the 16 minute mark of the first half, Davila got a hold of a ball from Nico Gomez off a scramble in front of the goal and the Kards were in business, leading 1-0.

After Kearny goalkeeper Joshua Rodriguez kept the Patriots at bay, making three brilliant saves, the Kards struck again, with Rojas of course being in the middle of everything. Rojas made a sweet pass to Alan Antonelli, who blasted it home with just a little over a minute before halftime. The goal gave the Kards a little bit of breathing room – but not a lot.

“It’s always important to get the second goal,” Galka said. “But we didn’t get the third goal.”

The game remained that way until the 63rd minute, when Freehold Township got on the board off a direct free kick from Logan Mullaney. Just like that, the lead was sliced in half and the outcome was somewhat in question.

“To their credit, they came back on us,” Galka said. “We had to get a grasp of the game again.”

Rodriguez made two big saves in the 66th minute off another direct free kick, not allowing the game to get tied. One minute later, it looked as if Rojas had pushed the lead back up to two goals, but after he got in free on goal, he slid the ball just wide right.

Two minutes later, Rojas wasn’t about to be denied. He made an absolutely brilliant run with the ball, spinning once and then getting control of his body from about 30 yards out. Rojas then unfurled a laser blast that Freehold Township goalkeeper Richard Lockard never had a chance to stop. It was Rojas’ 21st goal of the season, but it might have been his prettiest.

The Kards had two chances to put the fourth goal up, but two shots from close range sailed over the crossbar.

Sure enough, the Patriots pulled to within to one goal again, when Josh Hocheiser knocked one in at the 73rd minute. They were not going to go away easily. Teams usually don’t in state title games.

But the Kardinals put the game away in the final 10 minutes, scoring three times. Alejandro Alvarado was pulled down in the box, awarding Kearny a penalty kick that Rojas drilled for his 22nd and final goal of the season. You could almost feel the collective exhale from the Kearny sideline and the fans in the stands on both sides of the field. It was impressive to see the turnout of Kardinal loyalists who made it to Union and loaded up both bleachers.

Alvarado returned Rojas’ favor with five minutes left, scoring his 16th goal of the year to push it to 5-2 and Johan Baez capped the scoring and the season with his 13th goal of the season with just one minute remaining, setting off the celebration on the Kardinal bench.

Astoundingly, the Kardinals had seven players to reach double figures in goal scoring this season – scoring balance that is just unheard of. The Kardinals tallied 114 goals this season in 24 games, a total of 4.75 goals per game. No wonder why they lost only once this season.

“Forty years from now, we’re going to look back and realize how great this really was,” Rojas said. “This team is like my second family. We had so much fun all season. I’m so thankful to God just how awesome this was. This was one of the best days I’ve ever had.”

“It’s overwhelming,” net minder Rodriguez said. “I can’t show my excitement more.”

The Kardinals all rallied Saturday in honor of junior Christian Escandon, who suffered a serious knee injury in the first five minutes of the Elizabeth game Tuesday night. Escandon was on crutches on the sidelines, but he was on the field with several teammates wearing T-shirts under their jerseys honoring Escandon. Galka thought that Escandon was just coming into his own.

“Over the last three weeks, he was one of our best players,” Galka said. “He’s been fantastic. He’s been great on the ball. It was a terrible time for him to get hurt and miss the big game.”

Escandon’s knee requires surgery in the near future. With two torn meniscus ligaments, Escandon will require nine months of rehabilitation, but should be fine for the start of next season.

Galka had a sense that the Kards were ready for an explosion.

“I told my wife (Patricia) that we were going to score six goals,” Galka said. “Before I left the house, I said that we would win 6-0. The kids believed in themselves and in each other. I think once we got through Elizabeth, we were ready for the big one. This team was very similar to 2017. There was great cohesion and camaraderie. I’m going to miss the (11) seniors, but it’s time for the younger ones to step up.”

And as for the 33 state championships coming from “Soccertown, USA?”

“It’s been well documented in books and movies,” Galka said. “It’s safe to say that the moniker is alive and healthy.”

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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.”