The sadness of Harrison’s soccer players was painted on their faces as they left the Harrison High School turf for the last time this season. But while the pain of a season coming to a sudden end in penalty kicks remained fresh in their minds as they walked out of the locker room and started to head home, they were greeted with appreciation by their head coach for bringing the program back to the level it expects to be.
This year’s Harrison team, a group heavily composed of juniors and sophomores, finished the season at 17-2-2.
“We look at ourselves as one of the best small programs in New Jersey. But you have to win the sectionals and get to those final two rounds to call yourself that and we haven’t done that the past few years,” head coach Mike Rusek said after his team was eliminated by Ramsey in the Group 2 semifinals last week. “So now we’re back in that situation, we want to be talked among the other great small schools. I feel like next year we pick up where we left off and we go back at it.”
Ramsey won the PKs by a 5-3 margin after 100 minutes of soccer, which concluded with the teams tied at 1.
While Harrison ultimately fell two wins short of its ultimate goal — a 26th state championship — this season represented a return to the standard of what is expected in the soccer hotbed. Harrison won its first state sectional title since 2016 when it defeated Voorhees in the North 2, Group 2 final Nov. 5.
In Wednesday’s Group 2 semifinal against Ramsey, luck seemed to be on the Blue Tide’s side early on. Harrison withstood an offensive onslaught by the visiting Rams and despite that, led 1-0 after a Brando Moreno shot from 30 yards out went off the hands of the goalkeeper in the ninth minute
On the other end of the field, Ismael Kone continued his brilliant playoff run with several saves on a relentless Ramsey attack.
“During the state tournament, we really felt like we had the best goalie in the state of New Jersey,” said Rusek about Kone, who finished with 10 saves. “Every game, he’s gotten more confident. He’s turned into a leader back there and he’s just so big and quick and agile. And he’s a junior so we can’t wait to see what he’s capable of doing next year.”
Rather than going into a shell in hopes of escaping with a 1-0 victory, the Blue Tide instead ratcheted up the offensive pressure in the second half. The result was a much different Harrison team, which went blow-for-blow with Ramsey rather than one on its heels like it was for most of the first half.
In the 71st minute, Ramsey broke through on a restart when Lucas Chung crossed it from left to right past the defense to Luke Ernst, who slid a shot past Kone for the tying goal.
“In the second half we were trying to make it 2-0 because we felt like 2-0 would have put that game away,” said Rusek. “And we also felt that we were very confident with Ismael in goal.
Rather than let their heads sink after seeing it’s hour-long lead disappear, Harrison played perhaps its best stretch of the tournament after that with several strong scoring chances in overtime. Twice Harrison nearly won it on shots by Eann Vieira in the 88th minute and Moreno in the 91st, but each were stopped by Ramsey keeper Steven DePinto.
“I felt like we played our best soccer after it was 1-1. We really went toe-to-toe. Both teams, especially in the second half, I really thought it was a battle of two heavyweights, just slugging it out, going back and forth, back and forth,” Rusek said. “That was some of the most enjoyable soccer that I’ve coached in my entire career with just how fun it was watching two teams just attack and defend and play all out. Both teams put everything on the line.”
There hasn’t been much enjoyment about penalty kicks for Rusek and Harrison in recent memory and for the third time in four years, the Blue Tide’s season ended in PKs. DePinto made a save in the second round of PKs and Ramsey made all five shots to punch a ticket to the state final with Jason Balbena scoring the clincher on a boot into the lower-left corner of the net.
“I feel like we did everything we could on our end. We fought a great fight,” Rusek said. “In the end, I don’t particularly feel like we lost this game. We went to PKs (tied) and they made all five PKs.”
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.)