by Andrew Garda
With their first Prep B title since 2011, the Montclair Kimberley boys soccer team could have called the 2017 season a success, but ask any of the team and they will tell you about the one which got away.
The Cougars fought their way through a tough field in the NJSIAA North, Non-Public B tournament before falling to top-seeded Morris Catholic in the finals, 1-0, despite a hard battle.
For head coach Rob Leather, the loss was indicative of one thing he’d like his squad to fix for 2018.
“We tied some games against teams we feel we should have beaten,” Leather said prior to a recent practice. “That’s another goal of ours, to be more consistent. I challenged the boys in our meetings, that we need to show up in the bigger moments better than we did last year. We had a decent record and won the Preps, but we lost the state final again. So, a big moment sort of passed us by.”
Captains Seth Kaplan and Dylan Ladda echoed those sentiments.
“The past two years in a row, we’ve lost in the state sectional finals,” Ladda said. “So, we want to reverse that and go one further into the state final and pick up an overall championship.”
That means captains and senior leaders need to get the younger kids focused and on board. Ladda and Kaplan both feel like the younger players can contribute very early on.
“I think it’s important with a lot of young kids, to just kind of get them fired up and excited to go,” Ladda said. “There’s a lot of technical talent on the team, and if we can key into that we can do really well.”
“We lost seniors who were key players, but now we can have more talent come up from the sophomore and freshman class,” Kaplan said, pointing particularly to the forwards. “With the younger kids and the talent we’ve got, there’s more creativity and more talent up front.”
“We lost five or six seniors who started, which is never easy to replace,” Leather said. “But we have a lot of talented younger players. We expect some guys to step up this year, who were maybe even freshmen or sophomores from last year, to fill that void.”
Still, a lot comes down to the experienced players.
Kaplan has started for three years and will be in the midfield. Ladda was a prolific goalscorer last season, and Leather feels he should be one of the better forwards in the county.
Andrew Garofolo returns to goalkeeper after a solid sophomore season, while John Park has been a two-year starter in the backfield. Both juniors will need to step up, as the other three starting defenders from 2017 have graduated.
Leather thinks Garofolo should have a tremendous season though, which will help stabilize a backfield with a lot of new faces.
“He’s improved, and he plays at a good club level so he’s continued to improve. He got bigger though he needs to be a little more commanding,” Leather said.
Ladda actually thinks that despite the loss of some key players, the defense is in improved shape.
“I actually think our back line this year is going to be one of the strongest parts of our game,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of kids who maybe didn’t see a lot of time last year, due to a group of seniors who were playing a lot. But now there’s the opportunity for kids who play club soccer and academy soccer to step up and show what they can do in high school.”
Finally, Leather is looking to sophomore Zach Wheeler to take a bigger role this year as well.
“He was a real spark for us last year. He was only a freshman, now he’s back as a sophomore, which is exciting.”
Leather feels there was very little daylight in some of the losses this team had last year, with small mistakes or hesitations being the difference between winning, tying or losing.
“I think we lost to all the top teams by one goal, expect for Seton Hall, when we lost 2-0,” he said. “So I’m looking for guys like Dylan and Zach to be a little more productive going forward in those moments and turn it on again against big teams.”
The captains sound like they are ready to take that on.
“I think it’s about coming together as a team and just making sure we are on the same page,” Ladda said. “I think last year sometimes we weren’t necessarily on the same page, but if we can really key into that the way we did in certain games like Newark East Side, and the Prep Final, I think we are going to be very dangerous going forward.”