MKA senior Zach Wheeler sends a kick past the Princeton Day goalie during the Cougars’ 3-2 Prep Tournament win on Thursday, Oct. 24.

by Andrew Garda

The Montclair Kimberley Academy boys soccer team advanced to the finals of the Prep Tournament with a 3-2 win over Princeton Day Academy last Thursday, Oct. 24.

The victory came by way of a two-goal second half, where MKA managed to stay one step ahead of a determined Panthers squad.

“I thought we played really well second half, [although] I thought our finishing was poor,” head coach Rob Leather said after the win. “I thought we could have comfortably been out of sight, to be honest.”

The Cougars took a 1-0 lead with 8:10 left in the first half when Zach Wheeler intercepted a pass between two members of the PD backline, and dashed downfield.

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Moments later, he put the ball past the keeper and the Cougars were up 1-0.

Princeton Day didn’t back down, however, and the score stayed at 1-0 as the first half drew to a close.

MKA head coach Rob Leather knew his team needed to make adjustments before the start of the second half.

“The first half was tight,” Leather said after the win. “I thought they defended really narrow. They took away a lot of our play through the middle, so we talked at halftime about opening the game up wider with the fullbacks and outside midfielders.”

With a lead, Leather also felt Princeton would have to stop sitting back and playing passively.

“I thought at some point they needed to come out and a little bit and play, which gave us more space. I thought we played really well second half, [although] I thought our finishing was poor. I thought we could have comfortably been out of sight, to be honest.”

While MKA would add another goal early in the second half, when Wheeler sent a nice cross through the goal area where Shea Hammond tapped it into the net at 34:40.

It was Hammond’s twelfth goal of the season, and eleven of which were scored in the goal box.

“Somebody has to get those,” Hammond said.

MKA’s Shea Hammond finishes on a cross from fellow Cougar Zach Wheeler during the team’s 3-2 win over Princeton Day on Thursday, Oct. 24.

Even though they had a 2-0 lead, this is where the missed opportunities Leather mentioned came into play.

Several times a Cougar would find himself in excellent scoring position, only to shoot the ball wide or high over the goal.

Meanwhile, Princeton Day kept playing hard and scored on a rebound after a brilliant save on a penalty kick by MKA keeper Andrew Garofalo.

“It was 2-0 and we missed at least three like, really good chances,” Leather said. “And I thought we were playing well. But two-nil is a dangerous score, and then we give a penalty away so its 2-1.”

Leather said that first goal by PD gave them a lot of momentum, and made things tougher on the Cougars.

MKA regained their two-goal lead on a score by Omar Martinez with 16:45 left in regulation, but again, missed several opportunities to add to that lead.

Princeton Day scored again, with 14:32 left, cutting the score to 3-2.

“We scored another really nice goal, and then we give another foul away, allow them to put the ball in the box,” Leather said. “I really only felt they were going to score from set pieces, so I was a little frustrated at the end with [the team]. They need to manage games better, see games out and be aware that set pieces are dangerous. That’s a learning lesson.”

After the second Princeton Day goal, though, the Cougars settled down again, and showed very good ball control, still attacking the PD end, but also focusing on keeping the ball away from Princeton and disrupting their forays into the MKA end.

Time was against Princeton Day, and MKA managed to keep them from creating good offensive opportunities until the final whistle sounded.

Now the Cougars prepare for top-seeded Gill St. Bernard’s who host the Prep final on Wednesday, Oct. 30.

“They’re obviously really good,” Leather said of the Knights. “They’re obviously well coached, [and] they’ll be ready for us. They have a lot of good players. I think they’re a very junior heavy team like we are.”

While the Knights are absolutely a big test for MKA, Leather feels like his team has proven they can step up.

“You know, I feel like we’ve rose against good teams this year like we did against Seton Hall, like we did against West Orange, Livingston twice. We’ve played some good teams so we’ll be ready.”

The game will take place at Gill St. Bernard’s, with kickoff at 3pm.