by Andrew Garda
The Montclair High School girls soccer team’s 2019 season was a resounding success, with an undefeated regular season, an American Division title, a Super Essex County title and a North Jersey Section 1 title, ending with their only loss of the season in the Group 4 semifinal round.
That alone would make things tough for the Mounties, as every team is going to be looking to take them down in 2020.
Adding in the pandemic only amplifies that, but head coach Ashley Hammond knows his team is focused. They know, he said, that the difference between an undefeated season and a season during which they struggle is a razor-thin line.
“I think we have to remind the girls that, yeah, there were a couple of blowouts, but most of the games we played in were one or two goals,” Hammond said.
With fewer games — as it stands the team is scheduled for 11, but could have up to 14, which is the maximum that the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association will allow this fall — there is very little margin for error.
Luckily, this team didn’t see a massive fall-off in talent, as they bring the bulk of their players back.
They are led by senior captains Claire Manning and Sydney Masur. Both players, along with fellow senior Baldwin Gittens, were named to the All-SEC first team after last season, and Manning garnered first-team honors in Group 4 as well as the state.
She had 28 goals and five assists from the midfielder position, and she was a constant source of pressure on opposing teams, along with Masur and 2020 graduate Abby Romano. Masur, who had 9 goals and a team-leading 13 assists, also received postseason awards, including first team All-SEC and third team All Group 4.
Manning’s goals put her in the top 15 scorers in the state last year, and Masur’s assist total landed her among the top 50 in assists.
Even during the official NJSIAA “dead period” — which stretched between Aug. 29 and Sept. 14, when coaches and staff could only connect with teams remotely so kids could focus on getting used to school again — Hammond knew his captains were leading the team.
“I have strong leadership on the team, and I’m pretty sure the girls are out there training, working hard, either individually or in… groups, if they chose to,” he said. “Again, with very disciplined young ladies [in] the captain seat, Claire and Sydney, I think they’re out there working hard.”
Discipline was the watchword in 2019, as after every game, no matter if it was a regular season win or the Essex County Tournament championship, the team planned their next practice.
“We talked a lot about acting like you’ve been there before, but enjoying the moment,” Hammond recalled. “Most of the teams that we see in the latter stages of tournaments have been around before. You don’t ever want to rub it in their faces, but you also want to make sure you take in the moment, which is special. When you’ve got young 17-, 18-year-old girls able to metabolize that information and put it in play and in the heat of the most exciting situation, you know you’ve got great leadership.”
The end result of that, though, is every team will come looking to give the Mounties their best shot. The opposition knows how good Montclair is, and will prepare accordingly.
Along with discipline, the Mounties will respond with depth. Last season saw several freshmen rise up in big moments, most notably Sonia Neighbors, who got a lot of minutes in tournament play.
Neighbors is a quick, aggressive player who is on the verge of being a special weapon for the Mounties over the next few years. Rei Chappel, Sylvie Wurmser and Stella Tapia are other sophomores Hammond expects to step up.
And just like last year, Hammond said, the team has been blessed with another crop of great freshmen who could contribute during the season.
One of the biggest questions is who will fill the cleats and goalie gloves of Amelia Platt, who was a key factor between the sticks for Montclair, making some fantastic saves, particularly on penalty kicks in the ECT finals.
Hammond said there are ample players who can step up, starting with Molly Brumbach.
“Last year she played a lot behind Amelia, but [she] has looked fantastic in preseason and got taller if that’s possible,” he said. “She was a big girl anyway, but she’s taller, she looks fitter, sharper. She started last year and would’ve played the whole season if she didn’t get injured.”
Behind her is Teah Glorie, who started for junior varsity last season, and freshman Luciano Alicandri.
Hammond knows that this is an unusual year, and with the pandemic, the depth of his team might be tested. He is grateful for the depth of his roster.
“I have four or five girls that are just right up there from last year and I feel very confident can go in and jump in,” he said. “Myself, staff and the captains talk about it every week. [The captains are] on the field with them every day. They only want to win. They don’t have friends in terms of selection. And I will put the young kids on the field if they’re good enough. There’s no strings attached to me.”
At the end of the day, though, he just wants his players to stay healthy and have a season, shortened though it might be.
“We just don’t know,” Hammond said. “It’s a stressful time. It’s just stressful as a parent, stressful as a coach, as a player. So hopefully we can have some fun on the pitch.”
Montclair hosts West Orange at home to start the season on Oct. 3.