The images of visiting teams taking celebratory championship pictures with the “Blue Tide” sign in the background has been permanently seared into the brains of Harrison boys’ soccer coaches Mike and John Rusek. But while the memory of three sectional final losses may be fresh in their minds, only a select few of the current Harrison players experienced that pain.
“The thing about these kids though is they weren’t a part of any of that stuff,” Mike Rusek said about the three previous sectional finals losses on its home turf. “So for John and I it’s been a weight on our shoulders, but the good thing about Harrison kids is that they’re very resilient and very forgetful.”
Unbothered by past heartbreak from those before them, this group of Blue Tide players were able to create their own championship pictures.
Spurred by Diego Flores Sanchez’s first half goal, Harrison won its first state sectional championship since 2016 with a 1-0 victory over Voorhees in the North 2, Group 2 final in Harrison on Saturday night.
“These kids just came out to play today,” said Rusek. “I think we had the best game of our year and it was the right time for it.”
“Voorhees came in strong, but we weren’t here to lose,” Flores Sanchez said. “We were here to win. We’re Harrison and we love to win.”
Harrison possessed the ball in the upper-third for most of the night, consistently swinging the ball in and around the 18.
After a few good opportunities failed to result in a goal, the Blue Tide broke through in the 15th minute when Fabrizio Sousa sent a cross from the right side into the box. The pass found Flores Sanchez, who from less than 10 yards out, sent a right-footed shot into the open net.
“I saw the ball coming to me. I touched it then banged it near post,” said Flores Sanchez about his ninth goal of the season. “It felt amazing. We felt that we could win this game and that gave us more confidence.”
Flores Sanchez’s goal proved to be enough, even against a team with the offensive firepower of Voorhees. Ismael Kone, who took over as the full-time keeper at the start of the state tournament, made a huge save on German Burset Romero in the 20th minute.
“I was really confident because we’ve been working all year for this,” said Kone, who posted his second consecutive shutout of the state tournament. “We knew we had it, but we had to be dedicated to it. We had to put the work in and we’ve been practicing every day for it.”
After that scare, however, offensive chances were limited as seniors Augustin Nunez, Dylan Huseinovic and Deangelo Vargas were stellar on the backline as well as Gabriel Barreto-Reis and Andy Abarca, who helped out back there in key moments.
Their play in the back allowed Harrison to continue pushing players up to be a part of its possession-based attack and dictate the tempo for nearly the entirety of the second half.
Winning a sectional championship is the goal every year in Harrison, but for many, the expectation is to win a state championship. It’s a standard that is the byproduct of nearly a century of soccer success with 25 state championships.
The Blue Tide’s quest for a 26th title continues Wednesday, Nov. 9, when it hosts Ramsey in the Group 2 semifinals. A victory then means a trip to the state final Sunday, Nov. 13, at Franklin High School in Somerset.
“(Rusek) said that this group had to win the states because there’s so much talent here,” Kone said. “We knew we were going to go far. There was a lot of pressure, but we’ve handled it well (so far).”
Attention to winning that state championship and the upcoming match with Ramsey surely began on Sunday morning. But this particular Saturday night was about what this team had done, rather than what’s still to come.
Another team got to celebrate a sectional title with the Blue Tide sign.
But this time it wasn’t an unwelcome visitor, but rather it was Harrison adding to its championship legacy.
“I’m really proud of these kids,” Rusek said. “We had our difficulties this year, but these guys are fighters. They’ve been fighting through everything and I think it was the fighting that we did in September and October that led to our victories here in November. I really can’t say enough about this group.
“Every year you’re proud of your kids and you want to see the best for them. This group earned it, maybe more so than any group I’ve had.”
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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.)