ELIZABETH, NJ — All season long, Westfield head coach Alex Schmidt has commended his team’s fight and response to hardship. His Lady Blue Devils have battled tough situations and adversity through the fall and, in turn, have become a much stronger team from the beginning.
So when Westfield faced more adversity in its state tournament opener Monday, the Blue Devils did what they’ve done all year — just find a way to fight back.
With the score knotted at one, Jane Sullivan netted the game-winning goal with 5:29 left to give No. 9-seeded Westfield a hard-fought 2-1 victory over No. 8 Elizabeth in the first round of the North 2, Group 4 sectional tournament Tuesday afternoon. That goal came just 11 minutes after Elizabeth had equalized the Lady Blue Devils' long-standing 1-0 lead obtained on Riley Ciarletta’s early score.
Westfield advances to play No. 2 Bridgewater-Raritan Friday afternoon.
“We’ve been up against adverse situations all year, and I think the girls just responded beautifully,” Schmidt told TAPinto Westfield. “For Jane, being a sophomore with the game winner in a state tournament game, I couldn’t ask for a better feeling. I’m proud of the girls, they should be proud of themselves, and here comes Bridgewater.”
“It’s tough playing on the road in the state tournament," Schmidt added. "No one’s going home easy. It’s always going to be a fight. Small field, a little windy, and we were up for the challenge.”
Westfield appeared to be headed for a nice 1-0 victory when Ciarletta’s seventh-minute goal provided a lead that held late into the second half. But Maria DiLandro struck for Elizabeth to equalize with just 14:57 remaining in regulation, once again pitting Westfield into an adverse situation.
However, the response was quick from a composed Lady Blue Devil unit.
Just nine minutes later, Westfield took the lead right back and held onto it for good. The Blue Devils quickly applied pressure on goal and were able to create a set piece in their offensive end. That soon turned into a goal, as the ball was played to Julia Mancheno, who then sent a pass over to a wide open Sullivan on the left side of the box, and Sullivan finished it into the net.
The sophomore's goal severed the 1-1 deadlock that Elizabeth’s DiLandro induced with her 66th minute strike on a run down the right flank.
“It was that moment where you have to score here, or else the game’s over; season over,” Sullivan said. “We’ve been in that situation many times. I think our mindset is: ’Don’t give up now. We’ve come this far, just keep fighting until the end.’”
Sullivan said it wasn’t her best goal, but for a state tournament game, all that matters is that she put the ball in. And in doing so, Westfield will again get its chance to turn the bracket upside-down. The Blue Devils will hit the road and face No. 2 Bridgewater-Raritan — ranked second in the state and ninth in the country by TopDrawerSoccer — in Friday's quarterfinal.
Almost a full 60 minutes before Sullivan struck, Westfield jumped ahead on Ciarletta's score. To start the sequence, Sophie Hendricks booted a free kick into the box from far out near midfield. After the ball bounced around a bit, Ciarletta gained possession via Elisha Israel and sent it to the back of the net.
Westfield very possibly could have put a few more in, but even though the Blue Devils threatened with 24 total shots on goal, the majority of them came on strikes from far away. The field at Elizabeth's School No. 23 is incredibly small in length, and as a result, both teams were taking shots from deep out that would only bounce a few times — if at all — before reaching the respective goal keepers.
On the other side, Westfield's defense of Sofia Carayannopoulos, Brooke Sullivan, Maddy Armstrong, and Carly Sherman did a great job of stymieing Elizabeth, while Caitlyn Amman made nine saves in goal.
"I’m super proud of the girls and where they came from and where they are now," said Schmidt. "Untimely injuries all throughout the season and untimely losses as well, but if you ask these girls what the record was, I don’t think there’s one girl here who looks at the record and thinks we’re a bad team."