by Andrew Garda
It’s never a dull affair when the Montclair and West Orange High School boys soccer teams get together, and that remained the case on Tuesday, Oct. 29, for the first round of the NJSIAA North 1, Group IV sectional tournament.
The two teams last met on a rainy Oct 7 evening and the Mounties overcame a tenacious Minutemen team with a 2-0 win.
This time the rain and outcome were both the same as Montclair (13-4, 8-2 SEC) beat the Mountaineers (9-9-1, 5-6-1 SEC) 2-0 again.
The fifth-seeded Mounties (13-4-0) will get an unexpected home game in the sectional quarterfinals tomorrow, Friday, Nov. 1, when they welcome 13th-seeded Bergen Tech — upset winners over No. 4 Passaic Tuesday — to Fortunato Field for a 2 p.m. kickoff.
The MHS-Bergen Tech winner will advance to the sectional semifinals next Tuesday, Nov. 5, against either top-seeded Ridgewood or eighth-seeded Randolph. The North 1, Group IV final will be played the following Friday, Nov. 8.
Head coach Toure Weaver felt his team got a good test from West Orange, who always play a tight game against Montclair.
“It’s been like this ever since I’ve been here,” he said after the win. “It’s always a battle no matter what the record is. With West Orange, you always know it’s going to be a battle. When I saw we were a five seed and [the bracket] had them as a 12 I knew it was going to be a game.”
It was most certainly a game from the moment the first foot touched the ball, as both teams played with a high level of intensity. Each team found a way to get a ball on goal, only to be denied by the goalkeepers, and both teams spent a lot of time probing their opposite number to find a weakness.
Montclair and West Orange played two contrasting styles on Tuesday. The smaller, slightly quicker Mountaineers tended to kick the ball deep into the MHS end, aiming to let their center-forward use his speed to get behind the backline and hopefully get a shot on Mountie keeper, Sebastian Herrera.
Meanwhile, Montclair continued to play its precision, ball-control game, shifting possession from player to player in order to find open space and create opportunities to score.
“They’ve got a guy up top who is comparable with Mateo [Neighbors],” Weaver said. “Every time the ball is on his foot, you’ve got to be defending correctly. And they have another guy who’s pretty good too.”
Montclair was prepared for that, though.
“We talked about it all year, from preseason, we worked on 1-v-1 defending and also the mentality of defending,” Weaver said.
While using ball movement to create scoring chances is what Montclair does best, it was a set-piece which allowed them to break the scoreless tie 16 minutes into the opening half.
Neighbors took a free kick from just outside the penalty box, and sent in a low ball that skilled just above the turf, rattled around in front of the net as the Mountaineer defense failed to control it and clear the zone. Beck Schoenwetter had no problem finding the ball and then sending it into the back of the net, though.
“I didn’t even know it was him,” Weaver said of Schoenwetter’s goal. “But it was a great ball by Mateo, low and on the turf when it’s wet, it’s going to skip. And it’s so hard for defenders adjust to it, to that low-driven ball.”
West Orange rallied, though, and were able to get several chances only to be denied by Herrera, who had two outstanding saves during the final 10 minutes of the half.
“Oh yeah, he comes up big,” Weaver said. “Even in that Seton Hall game [1-0 loss in the Essex County Tournament final Oct. 19], he came up big on a lot of those balls that come across the goal, and someone’s running on to it, he has a nose for it, and he finds the ball.”
Herrera coming up big meant the Mounties carried a 1-0 lead into halftime.
When play resumed the two teams traded shots on goal, but slowly the Mounties’ defense began to cut off the Mountaineers’ forays into their defensive zone. Frustration became more and more evident in the posture and play of West Orange, boiling over in the 54th minute, when a Mountaineers player kicked Evan Best when he lay on the ground after the whistle, leading to a yellow card on West Orange.
Both teams started pushing and shoving as the Mounties tried to protect their teammate and West Orange vented their frustration. The chippiness would remain for the rest of the game.
In a game between MHS and WO, one goal is never enough, so the Mounties continued to attack the West Orange defensive zone. That work paid off with just under seven minutes remaining in the second half, when Neighbors broke downfield, got behind the defense and sent a shot past the keeper to make the score 2-0.
West Orange kept trying to kick their way into the Mounties’ backfield, but the stout MHS defense denied them every time right up until the clock hit zero.
At the end of the day, while West Orange kept things tight, the Mounties were able to control both ends of the field more effectively, and that made all the difference.
“We talked about, before the game, owning the 18s,” Weaver said. “That’s partly owning our defensive 18, [as well as] our attacking 18.”
That attitude usually serves Montclair well, as they have outscored their opponents 35 goals to 8. As nice as it is to shut teams down in the regular season, as far as Weaver is concerned, it means even more in the County and State tournaments.
“To get a goose egg in a game like this, is big.”