MKA senior Jonathan Park heads the ball against Seton Hall Prep in the Essex County semifinals on Oct. 17, 2019.

by Andrew Garda

VERONA—No team wants to lose, especially a team like the Montclair Kimberley Academy boys soccer team, playing in their first Essex County Tournament semifinal since 2012 and first under head coach Rob Leather.

It’s worse when the team feels that the referees had a major impact on the outcome, and that’s just how the fourth-seeded Cougars (12-4-1) felt following their 1-0 loss to Seton Hall Prep in the semifinals last Thursday, Oct. 17, at Verona High School.

It was a rough game, one that the officials allowed to remain so until the midway point of the second half. That was when the head official began trying to regain control. Unfortunately, that effort resulted in multiple yellow cards, and two critical red cards, all against MKA.

“Five cards to none, the stats say it all,” Leather said after the game. “It was a very picky game, it seemed that he [official] had no control in terms of like calming things down, he was just brandishing cards.

“Not much you can do about it. But the real losers there are the kids, right? Because they feel like they played a great game and it’s kind of been taken out of their hands a little bit.”

The result, eventually, was MKA playing down two men, as Will Horn was sent off with his second yellow card, while Jeremiah Druckenmiller was given a straight red for a foul on a Seton Hall breakaway.

“Even the goal was off a soft free kick,” Leather said. The kid’s dribbled inside, and he’s kind of like just runs into our guy, he goes down and that’s a goal.”

The high winds ripping across Verona’s field also may have factored into the goal. It was a long distance shot, and the wind seemed to throw MKA keeper Andrew Garofalo off. The ball hit the crossbar, shot down and hit the keeper’s back before bouncing into the net.

Senior goalkeeper Andrew Garofalo and his defensive backline held the Seton Hall Pirates to just seven shots on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 during the Essex County semifinals.
Andrew Garda/Staff

“So I’m not too thrilled with the way the game was officiated, to be honest,” Leather said. “Not much you can do about it. But the real losers there are the kids, right? Because they feel like they played a great game and it’s kind of been taken out of their hands a little bit.”

Despite the foul calls, MKA had plenty of chances to take the lead in the first half.

MKA had had plenty of chances to take the lead in the first half, though. None were bigger than Zach Wheeler’s penalty kick that was saved by Seton Hall goalkeeper Tomas Hut, who dove low and to his left to stymie the Cougar forward.

Just before that, Shea Hammond had a shot go just wide, one of a few chances he had to find the back of the net. Hammond has been a huge factor for MKA this season, scoring numerous key goals for the Cougars in win after win.

“Shea’s sort of like your talisman kind of forward, that everyone kind of energizes off,” Leather said. “He’s had a great season, and I thought he played great today. And I know he’s pissed because he thought he should have scored in the first half but that says a lot about the season he’s had.”

MKA’s Shea Hammond has been a force on offense for the Cougars this season. The senior is the kind of forward “everyone kind of energizes off,” head coach Rob Leather said.

MKA pressed Seton Hall the entire game, constantly harassing them at every turn and keeping them on their back foot for much of the game. SHP didn’t have a lot of chances off set pieces, though they scored on one, found themselves unable to control the ball in the Cougars’ end and generally looked off their game.

The Cougars came into the game focused and determined and it showed as the Pirates looked as shaky as they have all season.

“We’ve played Seton Hall for the five years since I’ve been here and we’ve definitely never played them better than that,” Leather said.

While it’s hard to feel positive about a loss, especially a loss that comes in this fashion, there are still a lot of positive takeaways for the Cougars.

The backline of the Cougars has been playing exceptionally well all season, and that combined with Garofalo’s excellent play in net has made MKA tough to score on. Seton Hall Prep had outscored its first two county tournament opponents 15-0, but managed only seven shots on goal Thursday.

“[Seton Hall is] good, you know what I mean? They’ve got a lot of good players. Performance wise, they’re great,” Leather said. “But it says a lot from where we’ve come to that we’re disappointed to lose against Seton Hall in a county semifinal. At the same time, it’s disappointing because it’s our first semifinal, and I felt we at least deserved to go overtime.”

MKA got back on track Monday with a 2-1 Prep Tournament win over Newark Academy and found out on Tuesday, Oct 22 they are the top seed in the NJSIAA Non-Public B Tournament. They will face the winner of No. 8 DePaul and 9-seeded Morris Catholic after a bye.

MKA junior Zach Wheeler goes in for a tackle during the Cougars’ 1-0 ECT semifinal loss on Oct. 17, 2019.

MKA got back on track Monday with a 2-1 Prep B quarterfinal win over Newark Academy. They will host Princeton Day in the semifinals today, Thursday, Oct. 24.

Additionally, the Cougars will eye redemption in the upcoming NJSIAA Tournament, where they have reached sectional finals in each of the past three seasons, only to come up short on all three occasions. MKA is the No. 1 seed in this year’s North Jersey, Non-Public B tournament, and received bye to the sectional quarterfinals on Friday, Nov. 1, when they’ll host the winner of a first-round match between No. 8 DePaul and No. 9 Morris Catholic.

If they advance, the Cougars would also host a semifinal match on Nov. 5 against either Hawthorne Christian or Newark Academy.

Powerhouse Gill St. Bernard’s, which defeated MKA in last year’s sectional final, is the No. 2 seed in the bracket.

“I said to them at the end,” Leather said. “I’ve got nothing but pride and a lot of positives to take from the game. We’ve got to keep rolling, we’ve got to be set. We’ve lost three section finals in a row, so we’d like to change that.”

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