BY ANDREW GARDA
Despite the difficulty of playing soccer in a year when the pandemic could have canceled a game at any time and ended the season with no warning, the Montclair High School boys soccer team flourished in 2020, earning a 14-0-1 (5-0-1 SEC-American) record and the NJSIAA North East G, Group 4 state title.
The team that took the field on Wednesday, Sept. 8, against Glen Ridge High School (results after press time) is a very different one from that group and has lost a lot of the 2020 championship team to graduation.
“Since I got the head job five, six years ago, every year, we’ve always returned five to six starters,” said head coach Touré Weaver. “This year is like the first time that we have maybe two starters [who] have returned. So, we have a lot of seniors, [and] all of those seniors haven’t been through it yet, [going] through what the season is like and the hardships and everything like that.”
The roster also includes six sophomores, so with all the inexperience at the varsity level, Weaver knows the preseason has been vitally important for the development of the team. That’s why they have worked against some tough opponents, such as Roxbury High School, which MHS played to a 0-0 tie on Saturday, Sept. 4.
“We just want to keep going on an upward trajectory, learn in each game and, you know, take some lumps and things here,” Weaver said. “But the end goal is getting through the counties and the states.”
That’s the reality of Montclair soccer, boys or girls. No matter who takes the pitch for Montclair, expectations remain as high as ever, whether among the fans or within the locker room.
County and state title contention is always the bar to clear, whether it is a team of veterans or a group of newcomers.
Given the success of the last several years, with an Essex County title in 2018, a finals appearance in 2019 where they lost to fellow powerhouse Seton Hall Prep 1-0, and a semifinal appearance in the North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 playoffs in which they fell to Ridgewood, and then a 2020 state title, the Mounties have also raised the expectations of their opponents.
“We’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” Weaver acknowledged.
In the top division of SEC soccer, that means teams will see some impressive shots.
Glen Ridge went 10-4 (6-3 SEC-Liberty) last season, and is returning to the American division, where it has been a tough opponent in the past. Then MHS opens at Fortunato against another team returning from the Liberty Division, West Orange, which finished neck-and-neck with Glen Ridge in 2020, with a 13-1-1 (7-0 SEC-Liberty) record. Then come Verona, Millburn and Bloomfield, none of which are at MHS’ level, but all of which will come to play a hard game against the Mounties.
MHS will then play two of its biggest annual opponents — Montclair Kimberley Academy and Seton Hall Prep. MHS has beaten its crosstown rivals in four straight games going into this year’s first matchup on Sept. 25, but despite a much smaller roster than the Mounties have, the Cougars always play MHS tough.
The American division title and county title almost always come down to Seton Hall Prep and Montclair, at least over the past five years. The Pirates have beaten MHS the last two times they met, first in a tight 1-0 game to open the season in 2019, then the county loss.
The previous two games were both MHS wins, though, a 2-1 overtime win on Sept 7, 2018, and then a shootout win for the county championship that November.
Tough games? Absolutely, but those games forge championships, according to Weaver, who always has his teams aiming to peak as the tournaments begin in October and November.
One place he will be looking for some stability is in goal, a position battle that has gone right down to the wire.
“We have had a lot of competition in goal,” the coach said. “Gabe [Smullyan] is a senior and he’s been playing well, came up with some really big saves during the preseason. And [Wil] Thatcher is only a sophomore, but I think plays beyond his years and has a little confidence to him. So they’ve both done a really good job. Right now, I like them both.”
It can’t all be on the keeper, though, and the Mounties will need a good effort from the defense.
“Nick Levine is in his first year starting at right back and Danny Hill at the left back,” Weaver said, adding that he will probably have a pair of seniors at center back.
On the opposite end of the field, the Mounties offense will also be looking to some new people to carry the load.
Junior Filippo Gaisie is in his first year at the varsity level, but Weaver saw some good work during preseason games.
“I’m really looking forward to him stepping on [the field]” he said.
Weaver also expects a big effort from Jabari Wilson and Landon Sipperly, but ultimately the Mounties will continue to play the style of offense that has been successful for them.
“You know how we usually go, we get goals from everywhere, so it’s not just going to be those guys,” he said. “I’ll look for it from the central three also.”
That center three, or midfield, is always a critical part of the MHS team effort. The center of the field is where a lot of plays start for Montclair, and Weaver is still tinkering.
“We still have a lot, lot of work to do in the middle,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of potential in the middle of the park, but we still got to get our spacing better, switch play better, and our roles a little more defined. There’s definitely talent and possibility there, but we for sure have to tighten the screws a little bit.”
Switch play refers to an effort to create space to attack on the side of the field opposite where the other team has blocked off.
There’s time for all of this. Weaver and the Mounties want to get off to a hot start, but the key to a really successful season is winning in the county and state tournaments. During most seasons, Weaver and his staff will continue to move things around, and what you see in November might be completely different from what you see in September.
That’s especially true with a group of new varsity players.
“It’s their first time with me [and] with the varsity,” Weaver said. “So, we have a lot of things to fix, but that’s the fun part, you know? I think that we can keep improving and shoring things up. We’re nowhere near where I know we can get.”