This time there was no storybook ending.
Rather than celebrating a state championship the Kearny boys soccer season ended in heartbreak, a 3-2 loss against Princeton in the NJSIAA Group 4 final at Franklin High School in Somerset.
Visions of a 19th state title and another dramatic win, instead replaced with the image of head coach Bill Galka consoling heartbroken players, who had collapsed to the turf after the final whistle sounded.
“The final message was that they played a great game,” Galka said. “They gave it everything they had, they certainly were in the game. We were unlucky to maybe not get a goal before they got that (winning) goal. It was a well-played game by both teams. It’s disappointing when you can’t find that goal to go ahead and you give up something so late.”
In the 77th minute, a pass was sent to Azariah Breitman in the center of the field. Breitman one-touched it to Archie Smith curling toward the net down the right side. Smith was able to turn the corner past the defender and slid a shot past the keeper. The ball rolled over the goal line before another defender could attempt to clear the ball.
“I just saw it get flicked in behind and I just continued my run,” said Smith, a junior. “I kept fighting for the ball and just managed to slide it in with a little toe poke. It felt so amazing when I scored. It was crazy.”
Kearny had a couple of late offensive charges in the final minutes, but its shots towards the net were blocked by the Princeton defense, giving the Tigers, ranked No. 7 in the NJ.com Top 20, its fourth state title.
“We just got caught on a break at the end,” said Galka. “Surely, we would have wanted more time to get it back, but the kids pushed right til the end. We’re very proud of what they did this season. It’s disappointing to lose that late and in the final.”
The Kardinals, who entered the game ranked No. 8 in the N J.com Top 20, faced plenty of adversity on its way to the state final and Saturday proved to be no exception.
Princeton opened the game with possession and just 14 seconds later, led 1-0 when Pasquale Carusone sent a through ball to freshman Harvey Smith, who got behind the defense and scored.
“Honestly from kickoff it was just electric so I just kept going and then I somehow got in behind (the defense) and I just tucked it away,” Harvey Smith said. It was massive to start the game off like that.”
After withstanding an initial offensive surge from Princeton, Kearny settled in and started playing at its desired pace.
In the 12th minute Denilson Salinas sent a free kick to Hans Zoller who had made a free run down the left side and scored to tie the game at 1-1. Salinas then gave the Kardinals a 2-1 lead with a goal just two minutes later.
“We just had to find our way in the game,” Galka said. “It’s tough when you give up a goal that early without even touching the ball. We had to get ourselves into the game and they certainly came out quick. After a while, we settled in and played well til the end.”
Princeton tied the game in the 47th minute on a Pasquale Carusone goal off a feed from Harvey Smith.
The second half saw the pace settle down with Princeton generating more of the attack before breaking through in the 77th minute.
“The first half was pretty hectic with the crowd and everything, and I felt like they had most of the momentum,” said Harvey Smith. “But at the start of the second half, we started strong and started getting possession and building our momentum slowly. Then we obviously got the goal.
“In the second half we started to calm down and just play the way we usually do.”
Kearny and Princeton played for the Group 4 state title in 2017, with the Kardinals winning 3-1.
Kearny earned its third trip to the state finals in the last seven years on Wednesday with a thrilling 3-2 overtime win over Westfield at Harvey Field.
Seven minutes into the overtime period, Zoller passed it to Gabe Gomez and raced towards the net. Gomez two-touched it back to Zoller, who dribbled past two defenders and used his left foot to slide a shot into the net for the winning goal. The third consecutive overtime game winner by the Kardinals.
Moments earlier, Kearny narrowly avoided elimination when a 20-yard shot by Westfield’s Benedict Nematadzira struck the top of the crossbar.
It marked the second time the Kardinals had stared elimination in the face when Zachary Pruecil scored to give Westfield a 2-1 lead in the 72nd minute. Gomez evened the score up just 43 seconds later with his second goal of the game.
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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.)