BY ANDREW GARDA
Preseason games of any type don’t normally draw a crowd beyond family and friends, but Monday’s match between the Montclair High School girls soccer team and their opposite number from Immaculate Heart Academy saw a lot of extra onlookers, including members of the boys soccer and football teams.
Even the sun came out for the few hours the girls battled at Fortunato Field.
Who can blame them? Over the past two seasons, the Mounties have been almost impossible to beat, with a 31-1-3 overall record, the 2019 Essex County Tournament championship and the 2020 NJSIAA Girls North East E championship. They scored 112 goals and allowed 20, only 5 of which came last season.
The Mounties keep raising the bar and increasing the size of the target on their backs, while also looking to replace some key pieces.
Gone are NJ.com’s player of the year, Claire Manning, who scored 20 goals in 2020 after netting 28 the year before, and Sydney Masur, who like Manning was an All-SEC First Team member. They also lost fellow first-teamer and backline anchor Baldwin Gittens.
Gittens wasn’t the only member of the backline who left. Emma Belsky also graduated and was a big part of the unit, leaving Kiera Hessler and Shelby Duffy as the only 2020 starters remaining on the backline.
Head coach Ashley Hammond isn’t fazed by the challenge because he knows he has a ton of depth on defense.
“Of course, Shelby is a rock,” he said after the scrimmage, which MHS won, 2-0. “I’ve been very lucky in that throughout the summer, the defenders, a lot of them showed up for summer workouts. So, we had a chance to put them together a little bit earlier than we may have done, and that’s helped a lot.”
Some players, like junior Zoe Greengrass, have been with the program the last two years but not started on the varsity squad. This summer allowed Greengrass to show that’s where she belonged, and she has impressed the coaches with her efforts.
“Boy has she stepped up,” Hammond said.
The same goes for younger players like freshman Morgan Zinn. Being able to get players like Zinn used to the varsity level of play during captains’ practices allowed the coaches to integrate them more quickly into the team. The result is that Hammond can plug Zinn into the backline right away.
“We’ve got two or three girls really pushing for the right back slot and the center back slot,” he said. “I feel really privileged to have depth.”
Hammond and the Mounties also have stability in net with All-SEC First Team member Molly Brumbach.
Last season saw Brumbach make 64 saves while allowing only 5 goals the entire season, with just 1 in the last seven games. Having a sure hand in net makes life easier for the defense, just as having a solid defense has helped Brumbach.
There’s depth here as well, with junior Teah Glorie more than up to the task if Brumbach is hurt or needs a break.
“[Brumbach’s] a star in goal. We’re lucky to have Teah behind her,” Hammond said. “She has been an incredibly patient young person who’ll get a shot next year. Although if Molly were to go down, I have absolutely no fear putting Teah in. And you saw it today. She was brilliant with her feet. Teah was very composed, very mature.”
Offensively, the team isn’t looking for one person to replace Manning’s 20 goals, instead expecting the unit to contribute together.
“No one can replace Claire, but we’ve got two or three girls up top working really hard, and Caroline [Anton], Kiera [Hessler] and Stella [Tapia] underneath them have just done a great job at getting forward. So we’ve just been reworking a few systems to accommodate for not having a 30-goal scorer, and the girls have just responded magnificently to it.”
If there is one person all eyes will be on offensively this season, it’s junior Sonia Neighbors.
Neighbors’ talent was clear from the moment she stepped on the field at Fortunato as a freshman, and she has been a starter ever since. Last season saw her shift to a support role, looking to make the assist in support of players like Manning. The result was a team-leading 9 assists.
With Manning, Masur and Gittens gone, Neighbors is someone Hammond is looking to for leadership.
“Sonia is an unbelievable leader with her effort and energy. She doesn’t say a lot, she’s a very quiet young lady, but boy, oh boy does she speak with her feet,” Hammond said. “You saw it today in the game. She’s got a nasty blister on her foot and she didn’t even wince, it didn’t even bother her. She just goes right out there and is just warring out there for want of a better description.”
Neighbors is a quick, aggressive player who is adept whether she is making a touch pass to an open teammate or firing a rocket at the goal.
She’s going to be the center of attention for a lot of teams, but Hammond said she’s ready.
“She’s a force to be reckoned with, and there’s no team in the state that’s not going to be cautious of her, but she knows [that],” he said. “She’s great. She deals with it. And boy, does she have some football in her feet.”
The Mounties’ first game of the season is Thursday, Sept. 9, at 4 p.m. on the road against Livingston, the team they beat in last year’s state final, 4-1. Their home opener is the following Saturday, Sept. 11, at 10 a.m. against Verona.
Between now and then, the Mounties have five scrimmages scheduled, including a quad scrimmage against Whippany Park, Demarest and Kinnelon.
“The girls, they’re ready for it,” Hammond said. “I can’t tell you how much fun we had last week in preseason, which effectively, preseason is over, we’re now into scrimmages. I mean, we’ve still got to train and all that, but it was so fun.
“They were awesome, and I just came out of the week just so energized, and that made me feel good. You’re obviously fearful of what you lost, but when I see what I gained, boy is my job fun.”