After leaving the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League in order to play an independent schedule, the Kearny girls soccer will once again be challenged with a slate of games that will rival anyone in North Jersey.
That’s more than okay with them because head coach Michael Sylvia has noticed that greater the challenge — the better his team seems to respond.
“I think the focus is constantly being in an environment that will push the girls,” the third-year head coach said. “For me, it’s really important that they’re getting the best games they can, the best competition because I think that’s when we’re at our best.”
With seven starters back from last year’s 10-6-2 team as well as the much-anticipated arrival of two freshmen starters, the Kardinals should once again be the overwhelming favorites in the Hudson County Tournament and a legitimate contender in the always-challenging North 1, Group 4 section.
“We know that we can play with anybody,” said Sylvia. “We know that the way we play is going to be hard for teams because we like to attack, but we also don’t give up a lot defensively.”
Leading that attack is a pair of four-year starters up top in Emily Horvaht (11 goals, 6 assists) at center forward and Paige Raefski (10 goals, 11 assists) at right forward.
The left forward will be sophomore Vanessa Salgado, who provided glimpses of her potential in limited action last year.
“She’s excellent on the ball and now she’s got another year under her belt,” Sylvia said. “She can battle as well as use her technical ability to really cause havoc. She should do really well for us this year.”
Senior Gianna Charney, who scored a goal in the Kardinals’ Hudson County Tournament final win over North Bergen, will also see time up front.
Four-year letterwinner Julia Araujo, who started in that left forward spot last season moves to left back as part of a defense that has been completely overhauled after graduating three starters in the back.
To fill the void, Kearny will start two freshmen as Kaela Cicchino takes over at center back and Mason Gryckiewicz will be at right back. Rarely do you see the Kardinals have one freshman starting right away on defense, let alone two, but Sylvia is confident they are ready based on their experience from high-level club soccer.
“Watching them come up through Kearny Thistle and then moving on to bigger club teams for us is a big confidence boost. We know these players really well and we know just exactly what they can do on the field,” Sylvia said. “I wanted to see how they fit in with the group and they clicked immediately. The chemistry’s already there. So we’re really excited to see what it looks like.”
Another four-year letterwinner, Maci Covello, also moves to center back from the midfield. Juniors Annabella Vallejo, Sara Ryan and Priscilla Castillo will be in the mix on defense as well and will see time, especially when Covello is shifted back to a more offensive role in the midfield.
When Covello is not in that offensive playmaker spot, the responsibility will shift to her younger sister, Olivia. Olivia Covello started last year in the midfield and had three goals and two assists, but has been the star of the preseason and is primed for a huge sophomore campaign.
“She’s poised for a breakout season and she’s already just taking charge and her leadership is coming out as a sophomore,” Sylvia said. “She’s always played well beyond her years, but this year she’s really, really impressed us this preseason.
“She was good last year, she looks phenomenal right now. Her future’s so bright.”
Junior Araxiel Cardenas-Saenz is also back at midfielder for the Kardinals, while junior Ariana Carvajal, sophomore Adrianna Rodriguez and senior Nicolle Fusaro are all in the rotation as well.
Kearny welcomes back keepers Gabriela Matias and Aracely Vasquez. Matias saw the majority of the action last year, but the competition between the two has been “neck and neck” according to Sylvia and both will see extensive time this year after they combined for eight shutouts last season.
Kearny opens up the season on Sept. 8 when it hosts Clifton in a 7 p.m. contest at Kearny High School. Two days later, the Kardinals travel to play defending Union County and NJSIAA Group 4 champions Westfield.
Overall, Kearny will play four teams that won their respective county championships last year in West Orange (Essex), Bridgewater-Raritan (Somerset) and Hunterdon Central (Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex) in the regular season.
“It doesn’t matter who shows up, we’re going to be able to battle and on any given day, the score could go in any direction,” Sylvia said. “We just have to keep moving forward, play our best soccer and see what the future holds for us.”
Learn more about the writer ...
Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)