Ahmed Abukwaik (4) and Conor Daly (5) hold the Cougars’ Prep B Tournament Championship trophies aloft as MKA celebrates its 2-1 win versus Gill St. Bernard.

by Andrew Garda

The Montclair Kimberley Academy boys soccer team may have suffered a tough loss in the Essex County Tournament back in October, but they’ve since responded by going on a nice win streak, including capturing the Prep Tournament title on Nov. 1 with a 2-1 win over Gill St. Bernard’s.

Head coach Rob Leather won’t let them rest on their laurels, though.

“This is fun,” he said after the team had hoisted the Prep trophy. “But the state’s the big one.”

Like any coach, Leather knows a good run — hopefully ending with a win — in the NJSIAA Tournament is the benchmark for any program. Leather’s Cougars are working toward that goal, having notched wins against Golden Ochs and Hawthorne Christian on their way to the finals.

Still, the a Prep title isn’t anything to ignore, especially when you win it by beating a team like Gill St. Bernard’s.

“They beat Princeton day 4-0 in the semi and Princeton Day are a really solid outfit,” Leather said of their opponent after the win. “So, we thought it would be a close game. We knew they were good, and I thought we played really well today.”

All of the scoring in the game came in the second half. The first 40 minutes saw a lot of back-and-forth play, with both teams getting chances to score.

Leather went into the break knowing they were close and just needed to make some adjustments.

“I thought we had the two best chances in the first half,” Leather said. “We told [the team] at halftime about concentrating defensively and being a little bit quicker on the counterattacks.”

Leather and his staff felt that their opponent was most vulnerable right after the Cougars stole the ball. If they were going to take advantage of that shift in momentum, they had to react more swiftly.

Greg Jenkins (18) sends a header into the net against Gill St. Bernard’s during the MKA Cougars’ Prep B final championship win on Nov. 1.

“It was really just speeding our counterattacks up, highlighting a few weaknesses we saw with their backline,” Leather said of the adjustments they made. “I thought we did a great job, had a lot of chances. Hit the crossbar, [and] the keeper made two good saves but Dylan [Ladda] is a finisher and I knew he’d get the next one and he did.”

Ladda’s goal would go on to make the difference in the match, which also featured a goal and an assist from Greg Jenkins as well as an assist from Seth Kaplan.

Like many games before and since, it also had some great saves by goalkeeper Andrew Garofalo and a strong defensive effort.

“I thought the backline was really good because [Gill St. Bernard’s] are a good attacking team,” Leather said. “I felt they didn’t really break us down in open play, they put us under pressure in set pieces towards the end and that’s when Andrew came up big.”

Garofalo had just five saves, but several came near the end when the game was drawing to a close and Gill brought heavy pressure.

“We were really happy with him,” Leather said. “I was giving him a bit of a hard time with that first goal because he should have just held the ball. But he came up with some good saves.”