By Andrew Garda
The Montclair Mounties girls soccer team saved the best for last.
Over the past two seasons, the Mounties have been a juggernaut, compiling a 31-1-3 record with a 2019 Essex County Tournament championship and 112 goals scored versus just 20 against — only five of which came this season.
Last Sunday they topped all of that, winning the 2020 NJSIAA Girls North East E championship with a dominating 4-1 win over Livingston, while playing perhaps their finest soccer of the last two years.
“I feel like that was their finest game,” head coach Ashley Hammond said after the win. “And when you’ve got the leaders that I have, and when you’ve got the attitude that I have, it was. I thought we played really well today. Very proud.”
The Mounties knew that Livingston would be a tough challenge, especially as the Lancer boys had just lost to the Montclair boys on Saturday in the NJSIAA Boys North East G, Group 4 final.
The Livingston girls came out hard and attacked the Montclair back line to start the game, but Emma Belsky, Baldwin Gittens, Kiera Hessler and Shelby Duffy kept goalie Molly Brumbach from breaking a sweat during the initial rush.
“We’ve bought so many games, so many clean sheets,” Gittens said. “[The] back line has been such a strong force these past two years, and we’re unstoppable. It’s just so amazing to not concede many goals this season.”
Then the Mounties flipped the field, pressing the Lancers defense with quick attacks into the offensive zone through pinpoint passing and ball movement.
Livingston was able to disrupt the first few Montclair forays, but that all changed when Claire Manning took a corner kick from the left side of the goal, sending the ball across the net to where Katie Giordano was waiting.
Giordano leaped up and redirected the ball into the back of the net with a brilliant header with 32:56 left to go in the first half.
Manning nearly added to that less than a minute later when the Mounties drew a penalty kick inside the box, but her kick went wide left.
Then, at the 28:50 mark, Shelby Duffy sent in a pass from midfield that found Sonia Neighbors arrowing in toward the goal. Livingston goalie Gianna Healy charged out of the net to try to beat Neighbors to the ball, but didn’t get there in time, allowing the Montclair sophomore to send it into a wide-open goal and increase the lead to 2-0.
Livingston refused to back down, though, and at the 21-minute mark, Kylie Prendergast put the Lancers on the board when she redirected a rebound from Brumbach into the net.
The Lancers seemed to gain some life after that, but Montclair, as they often did this year, responded, and again it was Healy’s aggressiveness that hurt the Lancers.
On the play, Sydney Masur sent the ball up the right sideline to where Manning was, and the senior captain turned toward the Lancers’ goal. Healy raced out to join her two defenders at the front corner of the penalty area, but chose her angle poorly.
Manning cut around all three players and sent the ball into another wide-open goal to put Montclair up 3-1 just before the end of the first half.
To start the second half, Livingston played an aggressive, physical brand of soccer, but Montclair was simply too quick and skilled for the Lancers. The Mounties worked the ball around the field, keeping it away from Livingston while also still attacking.
Montclair had a lead, but they weren’t about to take their foot off the gas.
Throughout the game, Montclair tried to feed the ball up the middle of the field where a streaking Manning would be looking to get behind the back line and score, but the timing was never there.
When it did finally come together, it was Emily Crane who was rocketing up the field ahead of a pass from Neighbors. Crane got to the ball just ahead of the Lancers and sent it into the net to make it 4-1.
“We knew Livingston was going to be a tough opponent, but we came out, we played hard and saw gaps in the defense,” Manning said. “We took advantage of that by playing wide and floating back in, and we did a really good job of finishing our chances today and got the job done.”
While the lead was all but insurmountable, the Lancers to their credit didn’t give up and kept attacking the Mounties. They found no quarter from MHS, however, and the back line of Gittens, Belsky, Hessler and Duffy continually disrupted their attacks. On the rare occasion when a ball did get through, Brumbach scooped it up.
With 3:30 left in the game, Hammond took a moment to put nearly all the seniors onto the field one last time.
“It was great,” Hammond said. “We miss Kate Fromfeld. She’s still a little bit banged up, and she’s a lovely kid who couldn’t quite get on the field, but otherwise we got every senior on at the end. They finished the game together, the seniors, which is a special group.”
After the buzzer sounded and the team celebrated, Gittens expressed a sentiment that was heard from every player on the team, but especially the seniors.
“We’ve worked so hard for the past few years. We’ve shown great heart and great strength on the field,” she said. “Coming together one last game from my senior year and winning is the best feeling I could possibly have.”