CLIFTON, NJ - In over 100 minutes of nail-biting competition, the John F. Kennedy High School varsity boys soccer squad defeated Clifton after scoreless regulation play, two overtime periods, and penalty kick drama, as the final shootout was captured 3-1 by the Knights.  

What made the gratifying victory even more monumental was that Clifton came into the contest as the defending New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association North, Group 4 champions and had routed the Knights in two earlier games this season by a combined score of 11-0. 

The unexpected, stunning upset sends JFK to play Randolph in the championship game on Saturday. To make the turnaround all the more remarkable, 2019 was the first time in 15 years that Kennedy had made an appearance in the annual state tournament.  

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Earlier this season, Kennedy Coach Richard Solis made note of the commitment of his young soccer enthusiasts. “The kids have really worked hard this year,” Solis reflected. “We stress discipline and commitment, and they have met that measure. I’m really proud of what they have done.”  

Played under bright, sunny skies and typical fall weather at Clifton’s Fernando Rossi Field, the Mustangs, led by seniors Jonathan Diaz and Sebastian Hernandez, gained initial possession. The first shot on goal was by Kennedy junior Juan Esteban Cornejo but was stopped by Clifton senior goaltender Eryk Dymora.  

After Kennedy sophomore Luis Portillo and the Mustangs’ Jacob Bartnik battled at midfield, Clifton senior Amer Lukovic let a high pop fly bounce in front of him but was able to dribble upfield as Hernandez cruised up the left sideline but was unable to turn the corner. Soon thereafter, JFK sophomore Jesus Martinez fired a shot from deep in the left corner, to the front of his goal, but no score was garnered. Clifton’s Steven Ozaga and Kennedy junior Danny Gutierrez then chased the ball down to deep in the right corner and a subsequent Kennedy free kick headed toward the net but sailed high.    

Passes between Hernandez and Bartnick eventually found Mustangs’ senior teammate Danny Tobin but shoulder contact by JFK senior back Justin Pajuelo muffled the would-be rally. Clifton then implemented a game-long strategy which displayed the Mustang’s confidence in their passing, as Dyomara, from his goaltending area, rather than boot a long kick to midfield, opted to find a teammate on the near wing who then set off a rally of passes upfield.  

A long shot on goal by Bartnik flew wide right and a Kennedy rally was quelled as the squads traded long kicks which prevented any scoring attempts. After a contact foul was whistled on the Mustangs, Pajuelo offered a spectacular, sliding stop and Clifton’s Dylan Perez and JFK senior midfielder Jair Alvarez battled on the far sideline. After the Knights’ senior Jesse Mendieta intercepted an inbounds pass, Portilla, while dribbling the ball, broke loose down the left hashmark for a one-on-one duel with Dymora but his left-footed boot missed the mark.  

A Clifton fast break which featured Hernandez, Lukovic, and junior Peter Lynch resulted in a bullet shot on goal by senior Eric Piwowarczyk which whizzed, just inches, past, and outside of, the left crossbar. The Knights answered with a Cornejo to junior Jahiem Cleary to Diaz connection but a similar shot also narrowly strayed. After a long kick by Mendieta was picked off by Clifton sophomore Ben Nelken, the Knights’ senior midfielder Richard Castro and Hernandez jockeyed down the right sideline and a two-on-two Mustangs’ fast break garnered no fruit.  

An inbounds pass by Mendieta, in front of the Knights’ goal, was greeted by a horde of Clifton defenders, the teams traded a trio of headers at midfield, and a promising shot on goal by Clifton’s Mariano Esposito was blocked. The intense play of Martinez, Castro, Gutierrez, and Cornejo provided several shot attempts for the Knights but no points were achieved. After Martinez and Lynch battled down the sideline, Esposito offered fancy footwork near midfield but Cornejo did the same. A Clifton penalty kick flew wide right and another freebie, this one by Dymora from midfield, almost backfired as the Mustangs’ goalie had to quickly backpedal to protect his net. A nice corner kick by Hernandez from the far right corner found its mark but the subsequent header bounced over the top crossbar.  

Excellent defense by Lukovic and Ozga continued to frustrate any Kennedy offensive convoys and a Clifton shot on goal missed right as the first half horn sounded with the score knotted with zeroes.  

As the Kennedy defense bent, but refused to break, Clifton managed to control possession for much of the second half with a number of shots on goals that barely missed, much to the angst of Mustangs’ fans. An effort by junior Juan Carlo Vizcaino, Bartnik, and senior Danny Tobin, resulted in a close, but no cigar, shot on goal after which Tobin and Cornejo traded elbows while waiting for a pop-fly to descend. A Martinez/Cornejo/Alvarez collaboration for Kennedy was terminated due to intervention by Dymora but Parra responded with a brilliant save of his own which was illustrative of his entire game performance excellence.        

After a scuffle between Gutierrez and Perez, and a nearly half-field Clifton shot was caught by Parra, Mustangs’ senior Jason Suarez found Vizcaino who dished to Esposito but the latter’s shot at the net flew wide left. Castro and Esposito then simultaneously crashed to the turf but both got up and continued play, as Gutierrez and Perez missed shots on goals for their respective teams.  

Mendieta and Lukovic collided as the Mustangs drew a yellow flag. A number of flurries then ensued in front of the net but, again, the Mustangs’ scoring desires were frustrated and with 18:07 left in the regulation, the score still stood: Clifton 0--Kennedy-0.  

Contact between the two teams escalated as a number of free kicks were awarded but, still, no points were posted. 

Highlights of the final minutes included Hernandez dribbling and darting through a gauntlet of Kennedy defenders and a sensational save by Gutierrez. Moments later, Bartnik appeared to be knocked down but no whistle was blown and Portillo challenged Dymara in a dramatic one-on-one confrontation but seemed to slightly hesitate as his shot misfired. Fans then stood to their feet as Perez, all alone, cruised past midfield and prepared to challenge Parra but a whistle blew, signaling offsides on Clifton, and the confrontation failed to materialize as the horn sounded, signaling overtime.

The pair of ten-minute extra periods proved even more suspenseful as players from both squads were pushed to their limits. Several Clifton shots on goal narrowly missed with Parra delivering a clutch save as neither team could gain advantage. With anticipation escalating, and still no score, the game entered the rare penalty kick phase with the teams trading one-on-one challenges between a single kicker and opposing goalie.  

Clifton’s initial penalty effort was stopped by Parra but Paterson’s attempt followed suit. Suarez then booted a missile for the Mustangs which Parra somehow, amazingly, managed to bat away.  

In dramatic fashion, Portillo then lined up for the second Paterson penalty shot, momentarily focused while staying stationary, and as fans from both sides held their collective breaths, took two steps and booted a bullet which flew just below the upper crossbar, into the net, for the game’s first score.  

After a Clifton endeavor hit the crossbar and bounced out, Paterson sophomore forward Christian Chavarria kicked left and the Clifton goalie mistakenly, dove right, for the Knights’ second score. Pajuelo then fired a shot which literally skimmed the underside of the top crossbar and flew into the net which resulted in Kennedy players rushing onto the field in jubilation, having secured the victory by the narrowest of margins.    

In a post game interview, Martinez gave credit to his teammates for the compelling win.

“I’m so happy.  Words can’t express how I feel,” the victorious warrior stated.  “Our team really came together.”

Superintendent of Paterson Public Schools, Dr. Eileen Shafer, attended the contest.

“It was a great win for the Kennedy Knights to beat a nationally ranked team,” the chief administrator commented.  “Our team played hard and were determined and focused. I am so proud of their sportsmanship and ability to play like a team.”  

Kennedy now faces off against Randolph on Saturday, November 22, in the championship round.

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