MHS Emily Crane watches as her shot beats the Ridgewood goalie during Montclair’s 2-1 win in the semifinal round of the NJSIAA North 1, Group IV tournament.

by Andrew Garda

The Montclair High School girls soccer team’s unbeaten season continued on Monday, Nov. 4, as they advanced to the NJSIAA North 1, Group IV sectional final with a 2-1 win over Ridgewood.

The top-seeded Mounties (18-0-2) had a tough battle on their hands for all 80 minutes, but kept their undefeated season going with goals from Emily Crane and Claire Manning, as well as a good effort by keeper Amelia Platt.

Now they have a chance to snag a state title at home on Fortunato Field today, Thursday, Nov. 7, when they host conference rival West Orange, the No. 6, at 2 p.m.

Offensively, the Mounties once again put the “opportunity” in “opportunistic.”

They opened the scoring 18 minutes into the first half when Sydney Masur flew down the right side of the field with the ball and fired a blast from the right side of the box. Maroon keeper Paisley Tornatore made a great save, but couldn’t control the rebound, which fell at the foot of Emily Crane. 

The result was a ball in the back of the net and a 1-0 lead.

“What I like about Em is, she worked her tail off today,” Hammond said of his junior forward. “My wife was just on the phone with me and asked ‘Who was your man of the match?’ I said I wouldn’t have to look much further than Emily Crane. Not necessarily doing a great deal with her feet, because she didn’t get a lot of feet to ball but she worked that line like a tiger all day and that was really incredible. She really forced their defenders to have to think a little bit harder, and they gave away some balls out of the back.”

MHS captain Sydney Masur moves the ball against Ridgewood in the Mounties’ 2-1 win in the semifinal round of the NJSIAA North 1, Group IV tournament.

Hammond said getting behind the Maroons (15-6-1) was another key to their pregame preparations.

“We had watched Ridgewood and we saw that they played with three at the back,” he explained. “And we felt we could get in around the corners, because they played three in the back. Unfortunately, when we did get in around the back we were a little bit profligate in front of the goal.”

While they didn’t finish as often as they would like — and Ridgewood did an excellent job of rallying throughout the game — Montclair would add a second goal with 28:28 to go in regulation, as Claire Manning beat Tornatore low and to the right on a penalty kick.

“Claire’s penalties are pretty good,” Hammond said. “I’m not going to say anymore because I don’t want anything in the paper other than that in case we have to take another one.”

While he wouldn’t say more about Manning’s PK prowess, Hammond had plenty of praise for freshman Sonia Neighbors.

Neighbors had worked the ball to the edge of the defense, and into the goalie box, where she was taken down as she tried to cut around the defender. The result was a penalty kick.

“Sonia to me, was absolutely fantastic. I’ve been talking about this for the year, but Sonia tends to feature in goals all the time,” he said. “She makes the left foot cut on the girl there, and bang, we get a penalty.  That defender didn’t see the left foot cut coming and took her out, which is goods job to the referee, who called the situation not the game. Sonya once again effectively gets the assist, which she’s always there or there about, always involved in something and that was fabulous on her part.”

Defensively, Hammond said one of the biggest keys was containing the two-player attacking line led by star junior Ashley Blaka.

“Although they had a lot of pressure, I felt like we got our numbers right consistently on defense,” Hammond said. “I felt like we got our position right on defense, I felt like we stepped really well, and Blaka has a fabulous right foot shot. She had two shots all day both with her left leg, we knew she was a right foot cannon outside and we never gave her a right foot shot. And that’s good enough because she didn’t shoot so well with her left leg.”

Claire Manning sends a penalty kick past the Ridgewood goaltender to give the Mounties a 2-0 lead during the team’s 2-1 win in the semifinal round of the NJSIAA North 1, Group IV tournament.

Ridgewood didn’t back off, and in fact seemed to get fired up down 2-0. They continually pushed into the Mounties’ end, finding ways to generate shots both off of set pieces and rushes by the forwards.

Then with 19:52 left in regulation, Ridgewood finally found the back of Montclair’s net as midfielder Gwen Flusche took a cross that the Mounties didn’t clear and slipped the ball past Platt.

“That was one of the first times they got around on a relatively uncontested cross,” Hammond said. “It drove in between two defenders who were just ball watching. They weren’t looking at the man, they were looking at the ball, and [Flusche] took a swing at it and it went in.”

The Maroons kept pressing after that, knowing time was not on their side, but each time they took the ball into the MHS end, the Mounties would turn them aside, often generating a counter opportunity.

While Ridgewood played well until the end, there simply wasn’t enough time to find another crack in the Mounties’ defense.

Now Montclair will turn its attention to West Orange, and a Mountaineers team they know well.

MHS freshman Sonia Neighbors was instrumental in the Mounties’ 2-1 NJSIAA semifinal win on Nov. 4, 2019. “Sonia tends to feature in goals all the time,” said coach Ashley Hammond.

“We’re lucky in that we see West Orange all the time, so we certainly have a good sense of them,” he said. “But they certainly have a good sense of us also. We know what West Orange brings: quality, talent, and I love the coach over there. He’s a friend as well as a great coach. We know what we have to prepare for.”

As Thursday is a day off for most New Jersey schools, Montclair could schedule the game for almost any time, but Hammond said he prefers the 2 p.m. start time.

“That’s our rhythm. We know that rhythm and the rhythm is good,” he said of preparing for a 2:00 game. “We don’t need to learn the 12:00 rhythm and rethink the timing on 12:00. The girls know the body rhythm at 2 now, they’re used to it and have had four games there now.”

The sectional final will be a rematch of the regular-season opener for both teams Sept. 5, a 3-0 Mountie win. West Orange started the season with two losses in their first three games, and has won 15 of their last 16 games since — their only blemish a 3-2 loss to Livingston in the Essex County Tournament semifinals Oct. 15. The Mountaineers have allowed only 10 goals during those 16 matches.