by Andrew Garda
The Montclair Kimberley Academy boys soccer team has been to three straight state championship games, only to come up short each time.
That’s something they aim to change, according to head coach Rob Leather.
In fact, he thinks the Cougars’ championship window is just opening and the key is the experienced group he has on the squad.
“We’re replacing three guys this year, but there’s plenty of talent to replace them,” he said during a water break at Monday’s practice. “We’ll probably be junior heavy this year, which is the oldest team I think I’ve had.”
It also appears to be Leather’s deepest team yet, with solid starters at all levels and players he thinks he can use off the bench, something a small school like MKA sometimes lacks due to the small size of its student population.
“I think we can go to battle with a couple of the bigger schools on a more even playing field from a physicality perspective and we’ve never been able to do that,” Leather said. “Last year we were up 1-0 against Montclair and [head coach] Toure [Weaver’s] rolling seniors off the bench. We’ve never had that. This year we’re deeper than we’ve ever been and we’re older than we’ve probably ever been, with talent.”
One big piece of that talent is goaltender Andrew Garofalo, who will start between the pipes for the third year in a row.
“He’s been a two-year starter, he’ll be a senior and he’s a captain as well,” Leather said of his goalie. “I think Andrew’s been great. In terms of leadership, I’m looking for him to step up a little bit.”
Leather is also hoping to stack a line full of seniors in front of Garofalo as well.
“I’m anticipating having an upperclassman backline for the first time and with Andrew in the goal we’re really going to try and be difficult to break down,” Leather said. “We feel like with Will [Horn] we have a really high-end defender and then Jon Park has played three years as a starter at fullback. So we’re going to have a strong back line and Andrew is going to hopefully marshall that.”
The backline isn’t the only place where talent resides, though, and a lot of it comes in the form of some very talented underclassmen.
“We’ve got some exciting attacking players, so I’m really excited to see Zach [Wheeler] go again, to see what Elliott O’dell’s got, and to see Spencer Goldberg step up,” Leather said. “Sean Cadigan’s a real good central midfielder, who can distribute the ball well. Our center-backs are soccer playing center-backs, so I feel like we’re going to be able to play soccer, but we also know we’re going to have to go to war at times and bring the physical aspect to the game.”
Leather said versatility of play is something the Cougars have been preparing this summer as their division will show them several different play styles.
“High School soccer is what it is. Sometimes you can play a good style, but we need to be flexible,” he explained. “When we play against West Orange, it’s not easy to play good soccer, because they have eleven big, strong athletic guys that make it difficult for you to play. Then in other games, like Seton Hall, you know it’s going to be a good soccer game.”
While playing a more highly technical game the way Seton Hall Prep or Montclair does is what Leather would like to each game, he and the Cougars cannot just focus on that.
“We’ve got to be able to match them, but we’ve also got to be able to match the likes of West Orange who are more athletically challenging at times. So, it’s really about being flexible and about being able to do different things,” Leather said.
Leather has seen a change in soccer locally over the last few years, with the level of play in the Super Essex Conference improving top to bottom as more and more kids play club ball at a high level.
“This area is a bit of a hotbed of talent,” Leather said. “I like to think we’ve got talent, Montclair, Seton Hall, Millburn, West Orange, Livingston, East Side, Glen Ridge, all these guys have a lot of kids who play club and were hopefully taught to play the right way and I think now in this area you’ve got coaches who are just trying to reinforce that. That are trying to play what I think we’d all consider the right way. Because we have the players who can do it.”
Leather has plenty of those club players on his squad this year, and so many of them are juniors or younger that they’ll be Cougars for a few years.
So while this team may have already seen three appearances in a row at the state finals, this doesn’t seem like the end of a run, but perhaps the beginning of one.