MHS senior captain Evan O’Brien goes up for the ball against the Seton Hall Prep goalkeeper during the Essex County Championship game on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

by Andrew Garda

LIVINGSTON—The disappointment was palpable Saturday afternoon when the Montclair High School boys soccer team’s bid to repeat as Essex County champions was denied by Seton Hall Prep.

Nicholas Sprague scored the game’s only goal, heading in a rebound with 13:03 left in regulation during the Oct. 19 county championship game at Livingston High School, giving the top-seeded Pirates revenge in a rematch of the 2018 ECT final.

It was disappointing for all the obvious reasons, and head coach Toure Weaver wondered what could have been.

“[Seton Hall is] a very good team, but I also think that we didn’t play how we normally play,” Weaver said after the game. “I thought we left a little bit [on the field[, and I don’t know if it was nerves or what, but I know sometimes you just don’t have it all. I don’t think it was a lack of effort, I just think we just weren’t clicking. Sometimes it goes like that.”

The third-seeded Mounties (11-4-0) didn’t lack for chances during the game, particularly in the first half, but throughout the match they seemed hesitant when moving through the Pirates’ end of the field. Seton Hall (17-1-1) did a great job of disrupting the Mounties’ rhythm, especially on offense, and that may have had MHS overthinking.

Whatever the reason, all game long, Montclair seemed to wait a second too long to lead a streaking player with a pass. Too much ball-handling, a momentary hesitation taking a fraction of a second seemed to be all the Pirates needed to set their defense and stymie the Mounties.

MHS junior Xavier Harris tried to slip a shot past the Seton Hall goalkeeper during the Essex County Championship game on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

“The first half I thought we got a couple of services in, [but] the second half, there were opportunities and then we played back,” Weaver said. “But yeah, I don’t think we were as dangerous as we could have been. I think we left our forward a little stranded up top. He can’t do everything.  I don’t think we supported the play as quick as we needed to.”

That forward was often Mateo Neighbors, who scored the hero goal in Thursday night’s win over Caldwell High School. Neighbors repeatedly pushed the SHP backline, but couldn’t find space to get a clear shot.

He wasn’t the only one, and Weaver said this team needs to find a way to free up those scoring chances.

“We have to make more opportunities and be more creative.”

Throughout the game, the Pirates had more quality chances and as the clock ticked past the halfway point of the second half, Seton Hall’s speedy attack gashed the Mounties defense repeatedly.

Eventually the dam broke, and with 13:03 left in regulation, the Pirates’ Sprague gathered up a rebound off a Sebastian Herrera save and put it into the back of the net.

IWeaver felt for his keeper, who’d made several fantastic saves throughout the game to keep the Mounties tied.

“He was awesome today. He had some really good saves that he held on to, and I couldn’t tell for sure from the angle, but it just looked like…it was a mishandle,” Weaver said, adding that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Herrera holds onto that type of shot. “I feel for him. But there’s other stuff that happens before that, before that’s even created that we need to be better as a team. So it’s not all on his shoulders.”

Montclair keeper Sebastian Herrara makes a save during the Essex County Championship game on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

Despite the heartbreaking defeat, the Mounties still have an important trophy to play for, with NJSIAA Tournament action getting underway this week.

Montclair is the No. 5 seed in the North 1, Group IV section, and they will face a familiar foe — 12th-seeded West Orange — in the opening round. That game will be played at Fortunato Field on Tuesday, Oct. 29.

Ridgewood, Clifton, Kearny and Passaic are the top four seeds in the section, in order.

The sectional quarterfinals follow on Friday, Nov. 1, the semifinals are Tuesday, Nov. 5, and the sectional final is Friday, Nov. 8. 

“If we can handle business in states this will be the last thing on our minds,” Weaver said. “You get a championship in the states, and that’s a really gratifying and satisfying feeling. We got work to do though.  We’ve got to keep improving.”

While they face a tough bracket, Weaver said his team will be ready.

“We know what it’s like going through a tournament. We know what it’s like going into a final. So hopefully we can take that experience and go from there.”

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