For several members of the Kearny girls soccer team, this past Saturday’s opener against Westfield was either the first or most prominent taste of varsity soccer. And while this version of the Kardinals roster is young, there is a strong belief that this new crop has been prepared for the season that awaits.
“We’ve been developing this group for a couple of years now,” head coach Michael Sylvia said. “So many of them really have big game experience. As much as it’s a challenge to graduate players, one of the good things is you know it’s coming. It’s been really important to us to develop this group and put them in the most challenging situations possible. We’re excited to see where it all shakes out this year.”
This season also serves as a prime opportunity for several seniors who had to wait for a coveted starting spot. No bigger example of that is in goal where senior Aracely Vazquez takes over as the top keeper, after playing in parts of several games last year, including playoff wins over Fair Lawn and Livingston.
“Since she was a freshman, we’ve always had the utmost confidence in her,” said Sylvia, adding that he feels Vazquez could start for any program in the state. “She’s a tremendous shot stopper and she’s been waiting so patiently for this moment, for this season that she is fully prepared to grab onto it with both hands.”
Promising freshman Casey Brown is set to be the backup keeper.
Regardless of who is in net, their job is sure to be made easier by the return of sophomore center back Keala Cicchino.Last year as a freshman, Cicchino established herself as one of the top young defenders in the state and is poised to play a bigger role in the offense this fall.
“She was tremendous in the back, but she’s also going to be joining our attack as well,” Sylvia said. “She’s very technical and tough as nails in the back, but is able to slide into the midfield or attack if we need some goals. We’re excited to unleash her this year.”
Senior Sara Ryan is set to start at the other center back. At right back, Annabella Vallejo is another senior set to start after playing well in limited time last year. On the left side is sophomore Melanie Rodriguez.
Sophomore Ava Natosi, who suffered a knee injury in last year’s state tournament will bolster the backline as the season progresses. Senior Shayla Torres brings added depth to the position.
At center midfielder, Olivia Covello returns for her third season as a starter. The junior had five goals and five assists a year ago and is poised to break out as one of the state’s top players with her all-around game.
“She does all the little things you don’t see,” Sylvia said. “She’s the one who we link to to connect the back to the offensive side of things. We’re asking her to break up plays (on defense), we’re asking her to keep possession, we’re asking her to finish, we’re asking her to find shots from outside the box, she’s taking all of our corners. She’s really going to be the spark that we need and I’m excited for her to shine this year.”
Senior Ariana Carvajal and freshman Makayla David will also see extensive time at center midfield.
Among those on the wings will be Adrianna Rodriguez, Nimah Devlin and Sabrina Varela. The biggest addition to the outside will be sophomore Mason Gryckiewicz, a starter at outside back last year, as she shifts back up to her more natural positions as an attacking wing and a forward.
“We want to let her attack more from her natural role that she plays,” said Sylvia. “We’re excited to get her into those attacking situations. She’s really good at getting down the wing and crossing the ball in.”
Junior Vanessa Salgado, who was limited by injuries last year is primed for a big season up top as is senior Araxiel Cardenas, who notched two assists in the state tournament.
Varela is another who could see time up top with seniors Blake Torres and Francesca Gomes-Montejano also vying for some time.
Saturday’s 2-0 loss to a Westfield team ranked No. 9 in the NJ.com Preseason Top 20 was the first of three games against top 10 teams the Kardinals will face within the first three weeks of the season. Kearny will travel to No. 6 DePaul on Wednesday and No. 10 Watchung Hills on Sept. 26.
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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.)