by Andrew Garda
VERONA — The Montclair High School boys soccer team is going back to the Essex County finals on Saturday, Oct. 19.
After outlasting a tough, physical Caldwell High School team the night of Thursday, Oct. 17, 1-0, they will face Seton Hall Prep at 3pm at Livingston High School, a repeat of the 2018 final, which Montclair won.
“It was tight but we pulled it out,” said head coach Toure Weaver after the game.
Montclair had its hands full for 80 minutes Thursday night under the lights at Verona High School as Caldwell played an intense, high pressure defense, attempting to disrupt the flow of the precision ball control which the Mounties pride themselves on.
A great example was how the Chiefs played senior captain Evan O’Brien in their own box. O’Brien was punched once, and had his face clawed a second time, neither drawing a foul.
Weaver said after the game it was the wrong tree to bark up, playing O’Brien like that.
“He feeds off that. You only make him madder when you do that,” Weaver said, adding that he spoke to the officials about it. “Sometimes teams can’t stop something like that so… all I know is we found a way.”
That way came in the form of Mateo Neighbors with just 6:40 left in regulation.
“So Weave told me to run [into the offensive zone], I just ran and it just turned into instinct after that,” the senior said after the win. “I had the one on one, with the [goalie]. I saw he was going to open his legs, and I almost hit it a little too high, but it bounced in.”
That goal came after some chances the Mounties saw snatched away by the excellent play of goaltender Francesco Crocco, who finished the night with ten saves. Neighbors said that while frustrating, MHS just kept attacking, while Weaver yelled “It’s coming, keep working” from the sidelines.
“It can always be a little disorganized after some emotional moments like that,” Neighbors said, referring to the flurry of saves the opposing keeper made. almost scoring and its not going in, so there’s frustration that goes through a team that lasts a little bit. But we had to overcome it and we did.”
In the early game held just before the Montclair-Caldwell match, top seeded Seton Hall Prep seemed to find itself on its back foot throughout the game with Montclair Kimberley Academy. While The Prep won, it seemed like they may have taken their berth in the finals as a done deal before the game started.
Weaver said that was absolutely not something he and his team ran into.
“You know, I did not look past this game because I knew [Caldwell] was having a really successful year, I knew they were going to come out tough,” Weaver said. “So as a team, and as a program, our whole mindset was on this game right here.”
That is an attitude that has served the Mounties well all season, one which began with a game against Seton Hall Prep and now wraps up its county section the same way.
While Seton Hall Prep beat the Mounties 1-0 in the first game, Weaver said that doesn’t mean anything thirteen games later.
“It’s pretty cool,” Weaver said of book-ending county games with the Pirates. “They’re a different team from the start of the season, and I know for sure we are also.”
“That loss in the season was an eye opener because we realized that, just based on last year’s performance, this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park with us,” he said. “So we have to bring all our all every single game.”
Neighbors said for the Mounties, the game Saturday is a critical one.
“Insanely critical, because we have no other objective.”
“That first game was tough you know, because we were still figuring stuff out,” Weaver said. “And now we’re a lot further in the season, and I think it’ll be a fun one.”
For Neighbors, who spent the first three years of his high school career watching his friends play because his academy commitments wouldn’t allow him to join them at the time, the game is another chance to contribute in a big moment.
“Before every game you just feel this need to do something,” he said. “I just know these guys are depending on me to make an impact on the team. [So], you’ve just got to push through it and let it flow in the game and let it come.”
After Montclair lost to Seton Hall Prep in the opener, they vastly improved, landing at No. 7 in NJ.com’s soccer rankings — right behind No. 6 Seton Hall Prep.
If this season — and those rankings — are any indication, the sequel to last year’s Essex County Final should be even better than the first version.
No. 3 seeded Montclair takes on top seeded Seton Hall Prep at Livingston High School at 3pm on Saturday, Oct, 17. Meanwhile the undefeated Mounties girls team, the top overall seed in the girl’s bracket and ranked No.3 in the state by NJ.com, takes on Livingston