CLARK, NJ- The Arthur L. Johnson High School Crusaders girls varsity soccer team took to the field looking to right the ship after coming up short in two previous games against the Governor Livingston High School Highlanders, the teams battling it out in postseason play.
However, Governor Livingston’s Samantha Erickson scored the go-ahead goal just 41 seconds into the second half and despite an impressive battle to fight back, the second-seeded Crusaders came up short, losing to the third-seeded Highlanders 2-1 and seeing their season conclude in the process.
The Governor Livingston Highlanders (18-4) advance to the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 2 Sectional Finals and will take on eighth-seeded Matawan Friday afternoon with the time TBD.
It is the first time the Highlanders girls soccer program will play in a sectional final since the 2014 season.
Erickson fired the ball on net after getting possession of the ball once the second half began and fired away to put her team ahead for good in a battle of conference rivals.
The teams battled through most of the first half with no score and with both teams rushing up and down the field. Governor Livingston, a team that came into action averaging 3.4 goals per game, found themselves more on the defensive side with the offense not clicking for either team early on.
“We did something more than what I thought we were going to have to do which was defend for long stretches in that second half,” Governor Livingston head coach Mike Roof said. “I’m a firm believer of playing attacking soccer and putting the opposing team on the back-foot. Tonight, our defense is what won this game for us.”
“We kind of flipped the table there with our defense being our calling card,” he added.
The Highlanders struck first on a goal from senior Catalina Abusada, cashing in on a scoring chance and giving her team the 1-0 lead at 22:23 of the first half. The teams would trade pressure continuously in the minutes that followed, but the Highlanders holding the 1-0 advantage over the Crusaders as the half reached the final minutes.
“We definitely possessed [the ball] a lot more than they did in the first half,” Roof said. “I think we had more clear-cut chances that we probably should have tucked away and maybe we would’ve been in a little more comfortable situation.”
Johnson got a throw-in near the Governor Livingston net and would capitalize on a chance to tie the game. Senior Cecilia Puentes got on the ball and sent it through to tie the game at 38:49 of the first half, knotting up the score at 1-1.
“I liked our fight. We never gave up,” Puentes said. “It was unfortunate that we weren’t the winners of a hard battle.”
The score would hold once the teams reached halftime.
“You never want to see the opposing team equalize within the final minute of either half, which is what [Johnson] did, and they had a little momentum going into the second half,” Roof said.
The momentum took a sudden and quick shift to the visitors after a chance came the Highlanders’ way. Erickson gave her team the lead 41 seconds into the second half. The Highlanders tried for a few more chances, but the ball wouldn’t reach the back of the net, the game remaining 2-1 Highlanders.
“Having scored less than a minute [into the second half], we took back that momentum and we kept playing what I thought was expansive, connecting soccer,” Roof said of the quick strike in the opening minute of the second half.
Johnson continued to fight for the game-tying goal, firing away chances on the field and some from corner kick opportunities, which ended with the ball being cleared out of the zone by the Governor Livingston defense, which stood tall throughout the entire game.
“I care very deeply about this group and their talents and abilities,” Roof said when looking ahead to the sectional finals. “We will need the same type of effort, concentration, discipline, and improved finishing if we want to win the final. There’s obviously little room for error at this stage and if we do a good job of just playing the way we normally do, [by] attacking, defending with intelligence, and handling pressure situations, I think we will be okay.”
The Crusaders battled throughout the rest of the half, looking to even up the score a second time, but in the end, couldn’t find chances on net and saw their season conclude as the visitors celebrated a victory.
“We played great, it was a tough loss,” Johnson head coach Ken Leeder said. “GL played well, we played well and unfortunately, they got the goal early in the second half. We fought, but we couldn’t put the second one in.”
For Johnson, the loss concludes the soccer careers of 14 seniors, including Puentes, Natalya Torres, Kylee Zawacki, Colleen Sullivan, Sarah English, Gianna Nieves, Rachel Papa, Carolyn Racanelli, Erica Symzack, Simone Yanagacio, Camila Howard, Nadia Kolfenbach and Nicole Buczynski.
“It’s all about the team work,” Zawacki said. “At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. When you step on the field, you need to have one common goal and that’s to win and you should be willing to do anything to help out your teammates to achieve that goal.”
“This senior group was great. They had a lot of success,” Leeder said of his 2018 senior class. “They won a lot of games. They’ve been to four straight sectional semifinals, so they had a lot of success.”
“Governor Livingston is a great team, they have a lot of talent,” he added. “It was a tough way to go out, but it was a well-played game.”