by Andrew Garda
The Montclair High School and Montclair Kimberley Academy boys soccer teams collided on Monday, Sept. 23, with the Mounties coming out on top 3-0 with help from goals by Evan Best, Mateo Neighbors and Soren Tollis.
The Mounties have won the past six games between the crosstown rivals, with MKA’s most recent win coming 2012.
For the Mounties (5-2-0), Monday’s victory marks their third win in a row and fourth shutout victory of the season, while the loss snaps a two-game win streak for the Cougars (5-2-1).
MHS head coach Toure Weaver said after a rough patch where the team lost close games to Seton Hall Prep and Glen Ridge, the team is starting to find their way.
“This is a different year than last year,” he said, referring to the squad that went undefeated in the regular season. “And that’s totally ok. I think we’re starting to find our identity for this year. Guys are playing with more confidence and I think that we’ve got a lot of guys who can come off the bench and play. So, we’re able to keep just rotating guys on and not lose any quality and just keep the intensity up.”
The two teams were very evenly matched to start the game, with both sides doing a good job of stymieing the other’s offensive efforts, but also generating scoring chances.
First, MHS had a chance off a corner kick, but the ball was headed too high and over the goal. Then, MKA’s Zach Wheeler sent a ball across to Shea Hammond, but Mounties goalie Sebastian Herrera made the save.
Weaver saw his team struggling a bit and knew he had to make some changes.
“The biggest thing I was paying attention to at first, was that when they were building out,” Weaver explained. “[MKA] had too much time on the ball and they were getting some good services into the box. So, we have a couple of different things to do to handle that, so we switched defensively and I think that actually disrupted them and that helped us in our attack.”
Montclair’s attack definitely responded to those changes, as they struck first at the 26:28 mark of the first half on a header by Best off of a corner kick.
That goal seemed to put the Cougars on their back foot, and the Mounties pressed their advantage.
“I’m not going to make any excuses,” MKA head coach Rob Leather said. “I thought they were, by far, the better team today. In open play, I thought they outplayed us. I thought we tried to play without having enough urgency and enough quality in the final third.”
At the seven minute mark, that resulted in a Neighbors goal making it 2-0.
“We have some set-pieces we work on in practice,” Weaver said. “Defending them and attacking them. And actually we got set-pieces today. This year, when we look back at the goals, we’ve actually found a lot of goals on really nice combination play.”
On the Cougars side, the second score seemed to take the wind out the Cougars.
“I think goals change games, right?” Leather said. “And I think the goals deflated us at the right time and I don’t think today — and this is different than the rest of the season — that we had enough belief in ourselves that we could break them down.”
That isn’t to say the Cougars rolled over for Montclair, and for a few minutes coming out of halftime, MKA had some momentum. However, the Mounties rallied and began to grind MKA down, spending a lot of time in the Cougars’ defensive end.
While Tollis’ goal with 8 minutes left — another Mounties score off a corner-kick — put the game out of reach, the score could have been much more lopsided, but for the efforts of Cougars goalie Andrew Garofalo.
“Andrew played great and that shows the difference in the game, right?” Leather said. “So, although they scored two goals from set-pieces, Andrew made a couple of great saves. Whereas their goalkeeper maybe made one save at the end of the first half. Apart from that I don’t remember us really troubling him at all.”
While the official tally landed at four saves for Herrera, Leather was correct that the Cougars didn’t get as many quality chances as they have lately.
Even red-hot Shea Hammond, the team’s leading goal-scorer with five in MKA’s first seven games, couldn’t break free for a clear shot.
“He’s been great this year. He’s been clutch,” Leather said of Hammond. “He scored two overtime goals, he’s scored goals at the end to even games up. He definitely brought energy but they defended us all well. They defended Shea well, they defended Zack well, they defended our wide guys well, they defended well from set pieces, they showed a lot more urgency in everything they did.”
For Weaver, that the team is finally finding its personality is critical, and each game is a chance to learn something new, even with early struggles.
“We kind of embraced it and said you know what, it’s ok to struggle a little bit,” Weaver said. “That’s what life is, you know? And in life you can’t expect to figure things out if you’ve never gone through struggle before. So, this is just part of the deal and we embrace it and enjoy it.”
Leather, on the other hand, said a team like the Cougars, who have big aspirations, have to step up in big moments.
“I just said you should be disappointed because you didn’t play well in a big game, and we’ve set ourselves goals to win big games, because we always seem to be one step behind the big four,” Leather said, referring to Seton Hall Prep, Montclair, West Orange and Millburn. “We certainly won’t get carried away [with the loss] but they should be disappointed because if they want to be who they want to be they’ve got to play better than that.”
MKA will get a chance to bounce back with a game at Nutley on Thursday, Sept. 26. Montclair, meanwhile, plays Irvington on the road that same day, followed by a spotlight game under the lights Saturday, Sept. 28, 7 p.m. at Montclair State University against Monroe.
The MHS-Irvington game Thursday will be a rematch of last year’s seven-goal thrilled in the Essex County Tournament.
“If you remember last year, we went down 1-0 to [Irvington],” Weaver said. “And it was 4-3 at halftime and it ended 4-3, so we don’t take anybody lightly and we’ve got to come each day to play.”
Every game, Weaver said, is about peaking at the right time in November.
“We’re trying to set ourselves up for the counties, states and seedings and we want to keep building and building and be hitting our stride once we get there.”
In the meantime, both MHS and MKA will learn their route towards the the 2019 ECT championship this Wednesday night, Oct. 2, when the bracket is drawn up. Both local squads are likely to enter the tournament in the Round of 16 on Thursday, Oct. 10.