by Andrew Garda
If you’re going to have a hat-trick, the NJSIAA North East G, Group 4 final is the time to do it.
Montclair High School senior captain Ben Ceccio’s timing in that vein — as well as with each of his three goals — was impeccable, as his hat-trick launched the Mounties to a 3-0 win over Livingston at Fortunato Field on Saturday, Nov. 21.
“We call him the locksmith,” said head coach Toure Weaver. “Because he kind of finds ways to unlock teams, find the assist or find goals.”
Ceccio’s first score came with 31:04 left in the first half. Coming up the left sideline, Ceccio cut in towards the goal with a defender mirroring him while staying on the inside. Halfway to the goal, the defender fell, leaving Ceccio a clear path to the net.
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Several Livingston players still stood between the Mountie and the goal, but Ceccio took aim and fired off a shot, past the Lancers and their goalie.
It would be the only goal MHS would need on the day, and the second game in a row that saw Ceccio give his team a win, with the first coming against Kearny on Thursday.
“Getting the first goal, it’s always crucial,” Ceccio said after the win. “They came out hard, but we get a quick one and put them away early.”
Ceccio’s teammates were well aware of what that score meant.
“Ben’s goal early on was huge, was instrumental in what we did here today,” said fellow senior captain Soren Tollis. “We always talk about it in the warm up and just leading up to games about getting those early goals and that’s exactly what Ben did then. He put it on his back, represented us, represented the town. That early goal was huge.”
The first goal was crucial, but Ceccio’s second goal at the 15:30 mark in the second half was the back-breaker.
On the play, Ceccio stumbled past the defender with the ball, struggling to keep his balance.
For a moment, Livingston goalkeeper Ben Pawlak came out to play the ball, and appeared to knock it away. Somehow, Ceccio got a foot on it while leaping into the air, and the ball found its was into the net.
While at points this season, Livingston had been able to pile goals on their opponents, they had only scored multiple goals against a team with a winning record once.
Add in Montclair’s exceptional defense, and two goals were just too much to overcome.
During the rest of the game, the Lancers seemed to slowly fall to pieces. While Pawlak and a few of his teammates kept urging their fellow players on, their was more arguing with the officials then there was actual soccer.
While they got a few chances in Montclair’s end, they never really threatened and keeper TJ Krongard finished the season the same way he’s played it every game — with very little need to make saves.
Nevertheless, Krongard continued to direct traffic while in the net, managing his defenders and making sure that the game ended with a clean sheet for the Mounties. Half of goaltending is communication, and if there is one thing we saw all season long from Krongard, it’s that he is an excellent facilitator.
With blood in the water and time ticking down, the rest of the Mounties continued to work hard as well.
Felipe Gutierrez had a few chances offensively, while continuing to help Montclair dominate the middle of the field. Julian Shorter made quick dashes into the Livingston defensive end, looking for a crack in their front so he could drive a shot home. Tollis helped move the ball around and kill the clock, while James Modiano kept pressing the ball forward.
As a group, Montclair never let up, never stopped working and showed the same tenacity and determination at the final whistle of the season that they did at the very first one of the season.
By the time Ceccio blasted his third goal past Pawlak, the rest of the game was academic.
Montclair ends the season undefeated with a 14-0-1 record, as well as a conference and the NJSIAA North East G, Group 4 title on their resume.
As always, the Montclair community showed up for the team, lining the fence at Essex Avenue and behind the goal on Chestnut Street. There were even fans standing on the hill at Essex Park, watching the action.
Gutierrez said to win this game, in front of this group of fans, on their home field is special.
“I mean, it feels almost full circle,” he said. “I think freshman year, we had a team that won a lot of games and we were so happy about like having this [same] group for senior year. And ending our careers here, especially on this field with all the people around us, alumni, my teammates, my family, everyone’s family. It’s just amazing. I can’t even put [it] into words. I thought about it all week.”
Tomorrow the Montclair girls face the Lancer girls in the finale of the NJSIAA North East E tournament. During the game on Saturday, many of the girls showed up for the boys to show the same support they showed all year.
You can be sure that somewhere along Essex Avenue on Sunday, the boys will be doing the same.