CRANFORD - The game looked to be over in the first 12 minutes, but it ended up coming down to the final 12.
Maggie Murray scored the game-winning goal to give Cranford, No. 17 in NJ.com's Preseason Top 20 ranking, a 4-3 victory over Watchung Divison rival Oak Knoll on Wednesday at Memorial Field.
With 11:40 remaining, freshman Aileen McGovern was fouled in the box, resulting in a penalty kick for the Cougars. Without hesitation, Murray, Cranford's biggest scoring threat, stepped up and slid one into the right corner to put the Cougars up 4-3.
"I use to switch it a lot depending on where the goalie was, but one of my coaches told me that I need to just pick a side and make that your side. I've practiced that kick 100 times and I could do that in my sleep," said Murray.
Murray also mentioned how a previous penalty kick still haunts her to this day.
"It was my freshman year that I missed a PK in overtime and I will never let myself feel that again," Murray said.
On the opening whistle, Cranford came out red-hot not just on offense, but the defense thwarted any attempt by Oak Knoll to get something going. Four minutes in, the Cougars scored their first goal of the year when Murray sent a corner into the box that Riley Korzeneski collected and sent into the back of the net. Four minutes later, Murray scored a goal of her own. By the 12th minute, the Cougars forced their fourth corner to which again Murray sent into the box, but it was Kirsten Williams this time who was there to clean it up.
Despite the blowout brewing, Oak Knoll didn't fold and trimmed the deficit to 3-1 right before halftime. With the defense still looking strong and the offense filled with threats such as Murray, Korzeneski, and more, Cranford head coach Andrew Gagliardo subbed-out his starting goalie Amanda Vath to begin the second-half for Maya Jones. Jones held strong for the first 20 minutes, but Oak Knoll scored back-to-back goals within 30 seconds in the 21st minute to tie things up.
"We're comfortable with both Amanda and Maya in goal," said Gagliardo. "I think Maya did a great job. Those two goals that they scored were one a bullet of a header off a corner and the other a suprising shot that caught us off guard. Other than that, I think they both did a pretty good job."
The Cougars were fortunate on two shots by Oak Knoll's Yasla Ngoma. Ngoma banged a shot off the crossbar in the first-half and clanked another off the right post midway through the second-half.
Though the Cougars lost a talented senior class this past season, they return a strong core on both sides of the ball that features some returning players stepping into starting roles mixed in with some freshman. 2018 starting center backs Claire Ganley and Abby Ahern return to anchor the defense and are joined by new starting wing backs Morgan Heim and Caroline Ewing along with Vath back in goal for her second full season. Some new starters on offense that join Murray include Korzeneski, Williams, McGovern, and Brooke Swandrak.
"With every season, losing players is tough," said Gagliardo. "But we’re lucky enough to have a lot of new and returning players who have shown they can step up for us. I think a lot of players can have a breakout season in their respective positions. We’ve got girls in every area who hold their own that can do well for us."
After making it to the Union County and Sectional finals and walking away with neither last season, the Cougars have set their sights on bringing home a championship in 2019.
"Our goals each season are to advance ourselves beyond the prior season’s results. So for us, based on last season, that’s winning a county and/or state title," added Gagliardo. "We got to both finals for the first time in a long time, and that was a great experience. I feel like we’ve gradually been bettering ourselves and our program the last few years. Winning the county and state are definitely within reach for us, and we’re excited for that journey."
Cranford's next game is set for Saturday on the road against Lawrence at 11 a.m.
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