The Fall 2019 season will be remembered as one of the greatest for the U11 Berkeley Heights Hammers. At the end of the regular season, the Hammers finished first place in their Flight 3 Division with a record of 8 wins, 0 losses and 1 tie.
Entering the playoffs, the Hammers faced the SCP Tornados (winners of Flight 2) in the first semifinal, while the Branchburg Dragons (winners of Flight 1) took on the Barnegat Strikers (winners of Flight 4) in the other semifinal. The Hammers were victorious over the Tornados with a score of 3-1 on goals by Griffin Ulrich, Matthew Gross on the assist from Anthony Ciolino, and Anthony Barca in front of a hometown crowd at Snyder Field.
The spectators included the players’ families and friends, members of the Berkeley Heights community and the Drew University Men’s Soccer Team players and coaches who made a special appearance and treated the Hammers to a motivational pre-game pep talk. The other semifinal resulted with the Dragons defeating the Strikers by a score of 3-1, setting up a Championship showdown between the Dragons (1) and the Hammers (3).
On November 17, a freezing and blustery Sunday morning, the Hammers, traveled to Branchburg to face the top-flighted and undefeated Dragons at their home field. "The Hammers’ game plan going into the early morning matchup was a simple one, don’t change a thing from what got you here, play your game and give 60 minutes of hard work and effort with a smile on your face…and boy oh boy did they do just that," said Coach The Hammers rostered 14 players for the elite championship matchup: Anthony Barca, Mason Barker, Anthony Ciolino, Ryan Cottam, Jacob Gross, Matthew Gross, Charlie Hanley, Jonathan Henry, Akshat Khanna, Cole Merrick, Ethan Robertson, Peter Ruane (out with an injury), Griffin Ulrich and Derek Zanko (on loan for the injured Ruane).
The winds were howling, temperatures were dropping, the coin toss was completed and the whistle blew to start the marquee matchup. The Hammers were tested within the first three minutes when a shot deflected off the arm of a defenseman in their own penalty box, resulting in a penalty kick for the Dragons. The Dragon’s player put the ball to the left of the Hammers keeper, Derek Zanko, who made a diving save. A collective exhale followed by deafening screams were heard from the sell-out crowd of Hammers fans. Over the next ten minutes, a back and forth battle ensued, until a ball was passed out of the back by the Hammers captain, Mason Barker to Anthony Barca. Anthony took the ball into the Dragons end of the field and just prior to reaching the baseline, whipped his left foot around the ball and hit a high cross to the 6 yard box. Jacob Gross was anxiously waiting and placed a beautiful right-footed volley into the back of the net, Hammers lead 1-0. The Dragon’s led a strong counter attack against the Hammers, resulting in a flurry of activity in front of the goal when the Hammers keeper deflected a hard hit shot by the Dragons. The Dragon’s player hit the rebounded ball into what he thought was an open goal, however, Ryan Cottam saw things differently. He emerged from the turf on the goal line and used his left foot to save that certain goal, clearing the ball far and wide in what can only be described as a piece of highlight reel defensive mastery. The first half would later end with the Hammers holding a 1-0 lead.
The second half opened and with 30 minutes to go, the Hammers knew they had to come out and stay composed by playing the same style of soccer they played all year. The Dragons blistered shot after shot at the Hammers keeper who continued to turn them away with a multitude of saves, inspiring the team to continue battling for the victory. The Hammers continued to counter attack and get their fair share of chances against the undefeated Dragons. As the minutes ticked off the clock, the pace of play accelerated and the Dragons scurried, looking for every opportunity to equalize the score. The cheering got louder, the attacks got faster, and the Hammers resistance wore the Dragons down, both physically and mentally. Just when the Hammers thought it was over, the head referee proclaimed “one more minute”, due to some injury time. The boys from Berkeley Heights finished strong and when the final whistle blew to end the game, the Hammers were declared the Fall 2019 Mid New Jersey Youth Soccer League U11 CHAMPIONS! Congratulations to the Berkeley Heights Hammers on a championship victory that will live on in the memories of these boys forever. A very special thank you for the unwavering support of all who came out to experience this colossal event, especially the Hammers families, Rovers families and friends. Coach Mark, Coach Chaz and Coach Clint….THANK YOU!