Throughout her soccer career Keala Cicchino has played almost exclusively as a center back, a position the Kearny sophomore not only loves, but one she has already established herself as one of the best in North Jersey.
But in an effort to take advantage of her speed and boost an offense that suffered heavy losses to graduation, Cicchino has been playing more of an attacking role than ever before.
This past week, Cicchino saw her most extensive action as a midfielder and occasionally at forward. And the talented sophomore has delivered in a big way.
On Wednesday, Cicchino had three goals and two assists as the previously quiet Kardinals offense exploded for eight goals in an 8-0 win over North Bergen. Three days later, in the Hudson County Tournament quarterfinals, Cicchino had three goals and an assist as Kearny rolled to a 10-3 victory against Hoboken.
Cicchino’s back-to-back hat tricks make her The Observer Athlete of the Week.
“In my club season I would get moved up to a defensive mid sometimes, but I’ve never really played this much attacking before in club or high school,” Cicchino said. “It’s definitely new, but I like it.”
“She’s such a talented athlete that sometimes we have to keep her in the back to clean things up and to match her up with some of the opponents’ top players, but we also want her to put her stamp on the game (offensively),” said head coach Michael Sylvia. “So sometimes we have to make that decision about whether to put her up top or in the midfield (or keep her at defense).”
Sylvia and Kearny have used others in a split attacking/defensive role before, most recently last year’s Observer Athlete of the Year Maci Covello. But Sylvia admits that its especially rare for a sophomore to handle the many responsibilities that Cicchino has taken on.
“Keala’s a very technical player, but she’s also got a lot of speed. We like to use her speed and her ability on the ball,” Sylvia said. “She takes most of the free kicks. With other people we’ve used in this position, they’re usually the targets on these free kicks, but with Keala we want her to use her speed and her technical ability to shine when we get her into the attack.”
Cicchino however looks at it as a testament to the ability of her teammates to adapt as well.
“I feel like it shows not only my versatility, but the whole team’s. Everybody can adjust and everyone can play off each other,” said Cicchino. “It just shows how much we’ve grown from the beginning of the season to now as a team and playing the type of soccer we want as a team.”
Kearny, now 2-7 after its two lopsided victories, plays at Bridgewater-Raritan before traveling to North Bergen on Saturday for the Hudson County Tournament semifinals as the Kardinals look to win a 14th consecutive county title.
“I think everybody’s really excited,” Cicchino said. “This was huge for us, especially the county (quarterfinal). This really is pushing everyone. I think this is huge for everyone’s confidence and it will help us, as a team, to grow together to move forward.”
Cicchino has proven to be a more than capable attacking player. But while she has embraced and enjoyed this new opportunity, Cicchino knows that her home remains on the back line.
Regardless of position, there’s no doubt that she’ll continue to be an impact player for Kearny.
“I do really appreciate being able to go forward and score goals, but I think that at heart, I’ll always love defense,” Cicchino said. “I just love the dynamic of being a center back and a defender so that will always be my main position. But I love trying new positions on the field.”
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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.)