by Andrew Garda
Nobody was sure what would happen during this COVID-19-altered season, and coaches weren’t even sure things would hold together long enough for a complete regular season, much less some semblance of a state tournament.
Yet through hard work and focus, the four local soccer teams — Montclair High School boys and girls and Montclair Kimberley Academy boys and girls — have not only made it, they have excelled.
Both the Mountie girls (10-0-1) and boys (11-0-1) as well as the MKA girls (10-1) were seeded as No. 1 teams, while the MKA Boys (8-4-1) landed as a No. 5 seed.
The MKA girls took home the title in the Liberty Division, while the MHS girls and boys both took top honors in the American Division.
From the beginning of the season, every coach had their eyes set on a conference title, because anything else was an unknown.
“We’re in one of the best conferences in New Jersey, if not the best, so to come out on top with everything that’s been going on is awesome,” said MHS boys head coach Toure Weaver after a 4-0 title clinching win over Millburn.
The Mountie boys finished the regular season ranked as the No. 3 team in the state, while the girls were ranked No. 2 and just tied another top ten ranked team in the form of No. 9 ranked Scotch-Plains Fanwood, an extra game not originally on the schedule but a great test for the Mounties heading into the tournament.
Girls head coach Ashley Hammond felt it was a good tune up for his team, and they were excited for a chance for revenge after a tight 2-1 loss last season in the NJSIAA Group 4 semifinal.
“They really felt like they should have won last year,” Hammond said. “So they were so excited to get in this game.”
Both MHS teams were honored by the township in an email sent out Monday.
“The COVID pandemic has been rough on our kids — virtual instruction, not being able to enjoy the company of friends in the classroom, various programs being canceled,” it stated. “The Township of Montclair congratulates the Mounties soccer teams – despite the circumstances, both MHS soccer teams have come out triumphant through all of this – the girls team is ranked No. 2 in the entire state and the boys team is ranked No. 3.”
The email encouraged members of the community to show solidarity with the teams by wearing blue on game days.
Montclair girls – North East E, vs. Union City (9-3 7-3, HCIAL)
The Mounties were awaiting the winner of the Monday game between No. 8 seed Union City and 9th-seeded Bloomfield, but coach Ashley Hammond planned to make sure his team was ready for either one when they faced them on Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 2 p.m. in the friendly confines of Fortunato Field.
Those who are not family members will be able to watch a stream of the game here.
The Mounties are an incredibly deep team, led by seniors Sydney Masur and Claire Manning. Manning’s 17 goals is the most on the team, while Masur is tied for assists with sophomore Sonia Neighbors with seven each.
Neighbors has been a huge help for the team, as Hammond has leaned on her as a distributor more than as a scorer. Still, her four goals have been game-changers as much as her assists have been.
Montclair will also depend on Molly Brumbach’s sure hands in net. The Mountie goalie has 52 saves this year and allowed just four goals, a big reason MHS has remained undefeated.
She’ll be helped by a stout back line anchored by Baldwin Gittens, Kiera Hessler, Shelby Duffy and Emma Belsky.
Montclair boys – North East G, Group 4, vs. Ridgewood (7-6-1, 6-5 Big North)
Montclair starts its NJSIAA run against Ridgewood on Tuesday, Nov. 17, against the No. 8-seeded Ridgers. Kickoff is at 2 p.m. at Fortunato Field. As with the girls, only immediate family members may attend but anyone will be able to watch a stream of the game here.
The Mounties play a tough defense and an opportunistic offense, and the goals have come from multiple places. James Modiano and Felipe Gutierrez each have six goals, with Julian Shorter (5 goals), Soren Tollis (5), Luca Campbell (4) and Ben Ceccio (3) right behind them. All in all, 13 different Mounties have scored on offense, making it tough to just pin any one player down without paying for that elsewhere.
Montclair isn’t a dump and run team, which means they need to handle the ball upfield in order to create opportunities. They’ve been able to do that this season on a regular basis, in part because of the excellent play of center-midfielder Gutierrez and his 4 assists.
Ceccio is also a big provider of chances, and he leads the team with 7 assists this season.
Defense is a big factor for MHS, just like with the girls, and also like the girls the boys have a great goals for/goals against ratio, allowing only a pair of goals while scoring 48.
Senior Tyler Krongard has been great in net, with 33 saves, but the team’s success owes a pretty significant debt to a defense that focuses on choking off short passes while dominating dump balls from teams that hope to knock a kick deep and outrun Montclair.
Ridgwood has just five shutouts compared to MHS’ 9 and has scored just 26 while allowing 20 against. Goalies Kyle Conenello and Ben Ewen have had to combine for 112 saves and unlike Montclair, which has several dangerous players, most of the Ridgers’ goals come from senior Nolan Beiter, who has 13.
This is a game which heavily favors MHS both in terms of talent and style of play, so while anything can happen in the NJSIAA tournament, Montclair looks like they should advance.
MKA girls – North East F, vs. Hudson Catholic (5-4-1)
No. 9 Hudson Catholic beat No. 8 St. Dominic 5-1, which means the Cougars are facing a team on Wednesday, Nov. 18, which has sometimes scored a lot of goals, and other times been scored against a lot.
The game should be aired on MKATV.
Top-seeded MKA’s only loss was 1-0 to crosstown rival MHS; otherwise they have outscored opponents 41 to 4. The Cougars have two dominant goal-scoring sophomores in Bella Douglas (16 goals) and Sofia Vinasco (11). Both are just as dangerous distributing the ball as they are finding the net with it, and they combined for 23 of MKA’s 37 assists.
The Cougars are a team that can overwhelm an opponent offensively, and they have a good chance of doing that at Van Brunt Field. Results were not available before press time.
Head coach Jordan Raper knows his team has what it takes to do well in the tournament.
“We feel that this season has been a success, especially considering the circumstances,” he said. “We have a solid core group of players and hope that we can go on a run to finish the season positively.”
MKA boys — North East H, vs. Seton Hall Prep (4-1-2, 3-1-1 SEC)
While the SHP Pirates’ record isn’t great, some of that is due to time missed because of a positive COVID-19 test, and the Cougars are well aware this is an opponent you cannot take lightly. The two teams clash Tuesday afternoon at 2pm at Seton Hall Prep. As the game is away, there is no MKATV stream of it, but you can find it on RDPlex.com.
MKA can play with these Pirates, though, as proven both by a close loss in last year’s Essex County Tournament as well as their class this season on Oct. 20, which ended in a scoreless tie.
Both defenses were stingy in that game, with MKA goalie Rollins Heath and SHP’s Tomas Hut both only having to make 6 saves each.
Seton Hall Prep was ranked No. 2 in the state back then, but are ranked No. 11 now, while MKA has climbed up to a No. 17 ranking with wins over Ridgewood and Millburn before hanging very tough with the No. 2 ranked Pingry team, losing 4-3, a game they lost in overtime.
In case anyone missed it, MKA is very dangerous this season.
“We have a ton of respect for Seton Hall and know we need to be at our absolute best to beat them on the day,” head coach Rob Leather said. “Our offense is firing right now, having scored three goals in each of our last five games. We will look to attack and take the game to our opponents this week.”
The offense is led by senior Zach Wheeler’s 8 goals, with fellow senior Will Horn right behind him with 7 and sophomore Omar Martinez checking in with 6 scores.
Those three lead an offense which has scored 36 goals this season, while the defense has allowed just 19. Heath is part of that equation, but the defense has also stepped up in several big moments, such as the earlier SHP game and close 1-0 losses to Bergen Catholic and Livingston.
It’s been a tough schedule, but one Leather said should serve them well now in the NJSIAA tournament.
“We are battle-tested this season more than we ever have been,” Leather said of a team that played five teams in the top 20 of the state. “We will probably not play a schedule like this again, and that means we are accustomed to playing in competitive matches and at speed. That should serve us well going into the Seton Hall Prep game.”
Every season head coach Rob Leather talks about how the small school shows it can play with the bigger schools, and every year he preaches that the way to prove it is to win tournaments like the NJSIAA.
It won’t be any easier this year, but if they can get past SHP – and they have the ability to – they can finally get there.
Regardless of the outcome, Leather said his team should be proud.
“The boys are really excited, and this feels like a nice culmination to an excellent season,” he said. “Regardless of what happens I will be proud of their performances on the field and how they have navigated COVID off the field.”