Over the course of the regular season Kearny showed it had the physical talent and depth to make another deep run in the state tournament.
The last week showed this group also had the mental toughness and resolve to thrive in the biggest spots.
With back-to-back overtime victories the Kearny boys soccer team eliminated all doubt about its mental toughness. First, it defeated Livingston, 1-0 in the North 1, Group 4 semifinals on Wednesday. Then, on Saturday against a Clifton team ranked No. 6 in the state, the Kardinals once again rose to the occasion as Benji Silva’s goal in the 82nd minute gave Kearny a 2-1 victory at Rossi Field in Clifton.
For Kearny, it is the program’s fourth North 1, Group 4 title since 2016. The Kardinals will now host North 2, Group 4 champion Westfield in the Group 4 semifinals on Wednesday at 4 p.m. at Harvey Field with the winner moving on to Saturday’s state final at Kean University at 10 a.m.
“You get glimpses of (the mental toughness) during the regular season for sure,” Kearny head coach Bill Galka said. “But in a tournament situation where you can be knocked out and have it be your last game, you see they have good mental strength.
“They certainly have a big belief in themselves that when they get into a situation where you either stay in it or you’re knocked out that they certainly pull together. Obviously the last two games, they’ve stayed strong and got it done.”
SIlva showed that resolve in the overtime. After Clifton tied the game at 1-1 in the 73rd minute, the versatile sophomore had a chance to end the game, but his scissors kick shot hit the post and cut across the goal mouth without going in.
Overtime gave Silva and the Kardinals another chance.
Guilherme Xavier flicked a Kearny throw-in to Denilson Salinas, who sent a cross to the left side intended for Silva.
A Clifton defender got in front of the cross, but his clearing attempt was not hit cleanly, allowing Silva to field it at the top of the 18, took one touch, then sent a right-footed shot into the lower-left corner of the net for the clinching goal.
It was the ninth goal of the season for Silva, who was shifted to defense following an injury on the Kardinals’ backline in the semifinal win against Livingston.
“He just moved up on the play, which we encourage him to do because he can play from a midfield position or from the back,” said Galka. “He got himself forward, got to the end of a poor clearance on their end and finished it well.”
Less than 72 hours earlier, it was Salinas who played the role of hero.
Two minutes into overtime, Salinas maintained possession on a Livingston clearing attempt from 35 yards out. The senior found Jeckson Rivera at the top of the 18. River made a high-arching pass to Salinas who had raced towards the near post and one-touched the ball into the net for the game-winning goal against a Lancers team that had allowed just 12 games in 18 games prior.
Wednesday’s win against Livingston was the second of three straight wins Kearny notched against a team that had been ranked in the NJ.com Top 20 this season on this state tournament run.
The streak started with a 3-0 win in the quarterfinals against a West Orange team that had knocked Kearny out of the state tournament a season earlier.
“You look at the section and certainly it shows great strength to go through the teams that we have so far in the tournament,” Galka said. “We built confidence in each one of these wins. I thought we played well against Livingston, but we had an even better game against Clifton at their place, at their home. We’re certainly ecstatic that we beat them there, got through and stayed alive for the (Group 4) semifinal.”
Kearny, currently ranked at No. 18, will see another Top 20 team on Wednesday in a Westfield team, ranked No. 19 and coming off a dramatic penalty kick victory over Scotch Plains-Fanwood.
“That (winning Group 4) is the goal every year,” Galka said. “We’re certainly looking forward to Wednesday afternoon and the goal on everybody’s mind is to get to Saturday and these guys are no different.”
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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.)