by Andrew Garda
VAN BRUNT FIELD — There were fewer fans but a lot of masks and hand sanitizer, two things that would not usually be seen when Montclair High School and Montclair Kimberley Academy lock horns on the soccer pitch, but despite all the COVID-19 distractions, once the athletes hit the field on Thursday, Oct. 1, it was soccer business as usual.
Unfortunately for MKA, that business has all too often been a Mountie victory, and that was once again the case, as MHS fell behind early but came out on top with a 3-1 victory.
For MHS head coach Toure Weaver, coming out of the first game with an American Conference win is a huge plus to start the season.
“Truthfully for us, the conference is just like a county [tournament],” he said. “With the county, your first two games, if you play well and you’re a top seed, you can handle business the first two rounds and then the next rounds are the really difficult ones. But in the conference games, it’s just like [that] every game. So, in the long run, I think it’s sometimes harder to win the conference because you’ve got so many good teams and so many games.”
On the MKA side of the field, head coach Rob Leather said his team was aiming for a better start to things for the season.
“I think expectations are pretty high in the group this year,” he said after the game. “So there are positives, but they’re kind of overshadowed right now with some frustration.”
Things didn’t seem too frustrating for the home team early on, as they got out ahead with an opportunistic goal by senior captain Zack Wheeler at 33:52 in the first half.
Wheeler caught MHS goalkeeper Tyler Krongard coming too far from the net to grab a loose ball and drove a kick past him for a goal.
“He took his goal well,” Leather said of Wheeler, who is battling a foot injury. “He worked the goalkeeper on another one in the first half, which [forced] a good save. So he is actually going to be great, we just need to get him fully fit.”
Leather felt that while the goal was a good one for his team, for the most part they didn’t capitalize on it during the rest of the half, in which he felt the team played way too passively.
“I was actually much happier with the second half. I thought we put them under pressure, but to be honest, the first half wasn’t played at the intensity that we need to play to compete with teams like Montclair.”
Wheeler’s goal got the Cougars the early lead, but as Leather said, the lack of intensity eventually caught up to them as the talented Mounties swarmed the ball to disrupt MKA’s attacks and pressed Cougars goalie Rollins Heath.
That bombardment by MHS shots finally paid dividends at 13:20 in the first half, when Lucas Campbell’s shot blasted past the Cougars’ goalie to equalize things at 1-1.
Less than two minutes later, Ben Ceccio banked a shot off the right post and past Heath to make it 2-1 Mounties.
Weaver said it took a little while for his team to find a way past the stout MKA defense.
“They’re very good and they were organized defensively,” he explained. “So I think it was more like we were just probing. It just felt like the two teams are kind of just like feeling each other out in the beginning. They’re very organized, so you have to figure out how to break it down.”
An early goal is sometimes a bad omen for a team, but Weaver said for the Mounties, it was just a matter of putting it behind them and sticking to their brand of soccer.
“We kept our composure and we kept playing it,” Weaver said. “You know, I knew that we have the quality and the talent on the team to be down the goal, or however many to still be able to get back in it. You just can’t freak out, and you’ve got to just stick to your principles.”
After halftime the two teams went back and forth, both creating plenty of opportunities to score. Rollins and Krongard each stepped up in the net, the MKA keeper making a tremendous save at about the 15-minute mark that kept the team down just one goal.
Unfortunately, the Mounties were able to find the back of the net one more time as senior captain Felipe Gutierrez gave MHS a 3-1 lead with just 4:26 left in regulation.
Weaver said Gutierrez came through at just the right time.
“I mean, that’s a huge goal because if that doesn’t happen, it’s even more frantic at the end,” he said. “They were playing really well at the end. We were kind of on the back foot, and getting that third goal is huge. Those are the types of things that help you get through a state tournament.”
Next up for Montclair High was their first home game, taking place on Oct. 7 at 4 p.m. against Caldwell. At the same time, MKA aimed to bounce back on the road against Verona.
The results of both games came after press time.