by Andrew Garda
The Montclair High School boys soccer team is the last local team standing in the Essex County soccer tournaments.The Mountie boys rolled through their first-round and quarterfinal matchups this week.
The top-seeded and unbeaten Mounties (15-0-0) will play No. 4 West Orange in the ECT semifinals tonight, Thursday, Oct. 25, a 5 p.m. kickoff at Livingston High School. Should they advance to the final, that game would be played this Saturday, Oct. 27, at 5:30 p.m. at Millburn.
But for the MHS girls and the Montclair Kimberley Academy boys and girls teams, there is still more play. Both Cougar squads advanced to their respective Prep B championship games this week, and all four local clubs learned their path in the upcoming NJSIAA state tournaments.
On the boys’ side, Montclair is the No. 1 seed in the NJSIAA North 1, Group IV bracket, and will have home-field advantage throughout the sectional tournament, beginning with their opener this Monday, Oct. 29, against No. 16 Morristown.
The MHS girls are the No. 2 seed in North 1, Group IV, and host 15th-seeded Union City on Tuesday.
The MKA boys are the No. 3 seed in North Jersey, Non-Public B, and will host No. 6 Eastern Christian in a quarterfinal game on or before Nov. 1. MKA’s girls were seeded No. 1 in the North Jersey, Non-Public B section and receive a bye to the quarterfinals on Friday, Nov. 2.
It’s busy, it’s chaotic, it’s tournament soccer.
‘Let’s be dangerous’
Mounties boys head coach Toure Weaver yelled that to his players a lot during Montclair’s 3-0 ECT quarterfinal win over No. 9 Columbia on Saturday at Fortunato Field. The Mounties were coming off a shaky 4-3 win over Irvington in the previous round, a game which was closer than it should have been because the team took its foot off the gas pedal.
He wasn’t interested in a repeat, so he continuously pushed his players to attack early and often.
“We got really good service in the box, we got numbers in the box, we got shots,” Weaver said after the game. “Their keeper’s really good, so I knew we just had to keep shooting and creating opportunities, because he was going to save some. But we found chances to put some in the back of the net.”
The Mounties have put a lot of balls in the back of the net this year, scoring 35 goals while holding the opposition to just nine. Eight of their games have been shutouts this season, and they have only allowed more than one goal once, against Irvington in the first round of the tournament.
That game saw starting keeper Ben Middlemiss leave the game due to injury, and junior Sebastian Herrera step in. Weaver was happy with the toughness he showed against Irvington, and was just as pleased with his efforts against Columbia on Saturday.
Herrera didn’t have to step up a ton — he was credited with just three saves — but one of those saves came on a penalty kick, a play Weaver called a “big-time save.”
“That was a huge moment, a huge potential turning point because it was 2-0,” Weaver said. “They had changed their formation and gotten a little pressure on us, and he came up huge. It was a good PK, with pace and a good spot, but he read it and saved it.”
Middlemiss is expected to return to the net for the semi-final round against a West Orange team who will be itching for revenge after the Mounties beat them 3-0 back on Oct. 8.
MKA GIRLS ON TO PREP FINAL
The Cougars are headed back to the Prep B finals next week, but they would have liked to still be playing in the county tournament.
Head coach Christie Welsh feels her team did everything it could to hang on against No. 5 Livingston in the ECT quarterfinals Saturday, but after the teams played to a scoreless draw, the Lancers came out on penalty kicks, 3-0.
“We felt confident with the people we put up [to shoot] and we would put the same group back in again,” she said. “We just didn’t take them well. I think [goalie] Ariana [Jobst] did well in the sense that she guessed right for both opportunities, but [Livingston] placed [the shots] better. To their keeper’s credit, she made two saves and we just didn’t put [our shots] further enough in the corner.”
It’s been a tough year for MKA, as they have had to deal with a stream of injuries, most recently Sarah Hobbs and sophomore transfer Julia Conforti.
“We haven’t had Sarah Hobbs for two games and that’s been frustrating, and even the one before that she was probably not playing at full capacity,” Welsh said. “We were really excited for Julia Conforti, but her first game in, she got hurt in the first 10 minutes. Stuff like that kills you.”
Despite that, Welsh is optimistic.
“We have a very good, athletic group who’ve been pretty flexible changing on the fly,” she said.
Scoring goals has continued to be at a premium for the Cougars, who have scored just 15 in 14 matches. On the other hand, they’ve only allowed eight.
“I’m confident, but for us it’s just going to be who is going to be able to put the game away.”
MKA BOYS READY TO RECHARGE
MKA coach Rob Leather isn’t unhappy with the long gap between games this week. His team is healthy, but a little rest never hurt anyone.
He’d rather be in the ECT, but a tough Millburn team ended that run in Saturday’s quarterfinal, 2-0.
“We gave it a good go, but I think all of the team agreed that they were a pretty legit team,” Leather said before a recent practice. “I think they’re as good as we’ve played. We’ve played them twice now and they’ve played us really well twice. The goals we conceded were a little disappointing.”
One of the challenges Leather’s Cougars face each year is simple numbers. MKA isn’t a big school, but they play big schools. Millburn was one of those.
“They were so deep they brought five subs off the bench after 15 minutes and there was no change whatsoever to the flow of that game,” Leather said. “If anything, they improved some of their game. So we were disappointed, but we gave a good account of ourselves in the second half.”
As much as it can be tough for a school of MKA’s size to compete with big schools like Millburn and cross-town rival Montclair, they do and Leather said that only helps come tournament time.
“The games are tough, but hopefully the positive for that is that we’ve played against four of the best teams in the state and now we go into Prep and the States where we’re seeing schools more of our size. It should, in theory, set ourselves up well for that.”
The Cougars defeated Newark Academy in the Prep B semifinals Tuesday, 1-0, on a Seth Kaplan goal. MKA will host the Prep B final Thursday, Nov. 1.
MOUNTIE GIRLS RUE CHANCES IN 1-0 ECT LOSS
The Mountie girls play a hard, fast, pass-happy style of soccer, which often catches teams off-guard. It creates a lot of chances, but unless you finish those chances, it doesn’t matter.
That was the case with the team’s stunning 1-0 loss to Caldwell in the ECT Round of 16 last Thursday, spoiling the Mounties’ bid to win their first county title in a tournament they have historically dominated since 2015.
“We had at least double digit shots on goal and off goal, probably close to 20,” head coach Ashley Hammond said after the loss. “They had one opportunity in front of the goal early and they put it in.”
That was the difference in the game, one goal which came around a collision in front of the net, and one which the Mounties could never recover from, in part because Caldwell’s goalie seemed to get all the breaks.
“We got our chances — inside of the post, keeper’s head, crossbar, keeper’s foot, defender’s backside. You know, if you name it, it hit everything but the back of the net.”
While he wanted the win, Hammond was happy the team fought to the end, and didn’t shy away from its style of play.
“We’ve lived and died by our passing of the ball. We did that all game, right up until to the death, we passed the ball,” Hammond said.
In high school soccer, teams tend to fire the ball downfield and chase after it, hoping to create chances. Hammond’s team focuses on ball control and movement, looking to organically create those chances instead of dumping and running.
Despite not scoring against Caldwell, Hammond isn’t rethinking the style.
“If we passed the ball and only created five chances then I think I could be criticized for overplaying, but I think we passed the ball and created 20 chances and didn’t put them in. Is that great defending, poor finishing? It’s always a combination of both.”