Raefski leads Kearny to state tournament victory with dreams of more to come

The first half horn sounded and Paige Raefski walked off the field with her Kearny girls’ soccer team trailing 1-0 at Livingston in the North 1, Group 4 quarterfinals. At that point, there was potentially just 40 minutes left in her stellar high school career. Raefski, however, had other ideas.

“Stepping off the field at halftime I really thought to myself how this can’t be the end here. This is not going to be the last game of my senior year,” Raefski said. “I knew that our team still had so much to do and we still have a whole story to write so it wasn’t going to end on a 1-0 penalty against Livingston.”

Raefski ensured that this story’s final chapter would not be that morning. First, she assisted on Emily Horvaht’s game-tying goal. Then, with 20 minutes left, Raefski scored the game-winning goal in the Kardinals’ 3-1 victory.

Raefski, who also had two goals and three assists in Thursday’s first round win over Fair Lawn, has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week.

The senior strike has recorded a point in five consecutive games, posting four goals and eight assists during the streak, starting with a goal and an assist in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals on Oct. 15.

“She is definitely on fire right now and that’s a great thing for us right now,” Kearny coach Michael Sylvia said. “Paige is really someone who is a huge part of our attack because she is so good at both finishing and playmaking.”

“It definitely does feel like I’m playing at my best right now,” said Raefski. “I know what I’m working for. This season from the beginning until now, I feel like the improvement has been a lot.”

Perhaps the biggest area of improvement has come with the development of her left foot. Two of her goals this state tournament have come on left-footed shots.

On Saturday, Raefski received a through ball from Olivia Covello and, on a 1v1 with the keeper, used her left foot to score the winning goal.

“I saw (Olivia) play a through ball right through the two defenders on Livingston and I just knew that was the ball I needed to work for. I needed to sprint to that ball and give it 110%,” Raefski said. “I got to the ball and it was a 1v1 between the goalie and I. I pushed the ball to my left foot, which is my weaker foot, but I knew at that moment that was what I needed to do. I put it right between the goal and the goalie, slid it right in and it went into the back of the net.”

Said Sylvia, “it really makes her so unpredictable because she can use both feet, finish and create with both her left and her right.”

Raefski has 10 goals and 13 assists on the season, but her impact goes well beyond the numbers, particularly in light of all the injuries Kearny has endured this season.

At one point, when the injuries were at their worst, Raefski was the only one of the Kardinals’ four senior captains healthy enough to play in the middle of the season when a short-handed Kearny squad dropped five games in a row.

“I knew that I had to step up as a captain because we were missing so many girls,” said Raefski about that stretch where fellow captains Horvaht, Maci Covello and Julia Araujo were all sidelined. “I had to get it into everybody’s head that we were going to come back from this and we just need to keep working for this, even though things weren’t going in our favor.

“I had to tell myself that this is not the end. There’s still so many more games to play and that there’s still so much more hard work to put out on the field.”

A four-year varsity player, Raefski has 37 goals and 33 assists for the Kardinals. She is currently uncommitted, but definitely intends to play soccer in college. Wherever Raefski goes, she’s sure to make an impact, both on and off the field.

“Paige is our standard on how to conduct yourself on the field,” Sylvia said. “How competitive she is, how she’s able to produce in big moments, how she stays calm under the pressure, how tough and resilient she is.”

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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.)