BY ANDREW GARDA
To start its season off, the Montclair Kimberley Academy boys soccer team took the field against Seton Hall Prep on Wednesday, Sept. 8, while suiting up a lot of new players.
MKA took an early lead with a goal from one of those players, as senior Zach Seeve put a blazing shot past Seton Hall keeper Aidan Batista at the 33:31 mark of the first half off a nice pass from junior Omar Martinez.
Unfortunately, the Cougars’ scoring just shy of seven minutes into the game left the Pirates a lot of time to even things up, and MKA couldn’t hold the lead for the rest of regulation, allowing a goal by Charles Giordano to tie things up and send the game into overtime, where Seton Hall’s Zaiden James scored the game-winner with a brilliant header off a nice cross by C.J. Bubniak.
Once again, MKA closely fought one of the best teams in the state and nearly stole the game, but couldn’t hold on for the win.
Nonetheless, head coach Rob Leather was pleased with his team’s effort.
“We had to defend and be disciplined and be organized and frustrate them, and I think we did that,” Leather said after the game. “They scored a scrappy goal from a set piece, [and] the goal to win, it was a good goal. Listen, I’m disappointed, we lost in overtime, but I’m also pretty happy with the fact we had five or six underclassmen, four freshmen who were either on the field or coming off the bench.”
Add to that a pair of sophomores starting on the backline, and standing firm against a team like Seton Hall — which has a roster of 30 players, 20 of whom are seniors, with no freshmen and only three sophomores — is impressive, even in a loss.
Equally impressive was the effort of backup goalie Andrew Avalos, who was forced into action when starting keeper Aaron Leftkowitz was injured and forced to leave the game with about 30 minutes left in regulation.
The sophomore goalie had not played a varsity game before, and certainly not against Seton Hall, but he did not shy away from the challenge. While he did let the two goals in, Avalos made numerous impressive saves.
“Andrew is a strong character kid, so I’m not surprised he was ready and locked in,” Leather said. “So yeah, not surprised with Andrew because I know how good he is.”
Avalos is the perfect example of MKA’s team this year. They are young, they are a bit inexperienced in areas, but they are talented, well-coached and hungry.
Losing players such as Will Horn, Zach Wheeler, Spencer Goldberg and goalie Rollins Heath to graduation left Leather looking for other players to step up, but he knew just where to look.
“We lost a lot of seniors, but we had the strongest [junior varsity] team last year that we’ve ever had,” the coach said. “And we still had guys who played [on last year’s varsity]. So, obviously we lost a lot of starters, but I actually think we’re a little deeper than maybe we were last year because the guys who played JV were good players who probably would’ve made varsity most seasons.”
There’s a lot of talent at the top of the roster, according to Leather.
Among those on last year’s varsity squad coming back is Sean Cadigan, who recently committed to Division I St. Peter’s, and who will handle center midfield. He’ll be at midfield with Seeve, who worked as an attacking midfielder in 2020, but will spend more time at center midfield this year.
Martinez, who was the third-highest goal-scorer for the Cougars last year, is also back, as is Koome Murungi, who struggled with injuries and now is fully healthy. Both will play forward.
Leather will lean on those players as well for leadership, and named Cadigan, Seeve and Murungi as his captains.
“So we’ve got four guys who played last year and started on that team,” he said. “We still have plenty coming back.”
The key to the team could be the play at center-mid, particularly from Cadigan. The way MKA plays, the center-mid can be the “quarterback” of the offense, and Leather feels Cadigan is more than up to the task.
“Listen, I think Sean will be one of the best players in the county,” the coach said. “I’ll be honest. That’s how good I think he is. He’s a winner, you know, so he’s kind of going to be the glue that holds everything together.”
With the talent the team has, offense should be something this team can produce.
Defense is where Leather says there is more uncertainty.
“It’s the defensive piece of the game that we need to figure out,” he said.
That was on display a little against Seton Hall Wednesday. The first goal the Pirates slipped by Avalos was one where MKA just couldn’t clear out the front of the net. Seton Hall just kept poking at the ball until Giordano tapped it in.
“We’re looking at different partnerships in the back, but we’ve got a lot of options,” Leather said. “It’s just going to take maybe a little time to jell, but that was the same last year, and we ended up with a much different backline [at the end] than we did at the start. That’s always kind of the case. I feel that the starting team evolves and relationships evolve, and you get to a point kind of by the end of September where you’ve got what your starting team is.”
While Leather will rely on his veteran players, he’s also going to need his newer players to perform.
He’s liked what he’s seen so far. There is definitely some growth needed, as evidenced by several yellow cards MKA was issued, many of which were penalties that seemed to be retaliatory or foolish decisions by young players.
While not the difference in this game, those mistakes cannot be made, as they will eventually cost MKA. Leather said it’s up to the younger players how often they get on the field.
It’s likely that continued mistakes like poor fouls will factor into getting a seat on the bench.
Unlike the other programs in the SEC-American division, the MKA boys program is a smaller one, with fewer students to pull from and, therefore, fewer players on the roster.
It’s a testament to the coaching that despite being at a numerical disadvantage, the Cougars compete with the best, consistently punching above their weight given the size of other rosters.
“I have high expectations, like I always do,” Leather said. “I certainly don’t think this is a rebuild year, just because we graduated some kids. It’s just going to be a different group and maybe hitting the reset button a little more.”