BERNARDSVILLE, NJ — The Bernards boys soccer team staked its claim as of the very best in New Jersey by finishing an undefeated season with a 5-1 victory over Steinert Saturday at Olcott Field for the Central West A, Groups 1-3 regional championship on legendary coach Joe LaSpada's birthday.

Gilberto Ferreira scored three goals and had one assist for Bernards (14-0), which won its second consecutive championship. Last year, the Mountaineers were the NJSIAA overall Group 2 state champions. There will not be any overall state championship awarded in 2020, so this is the closest Bernards can come to repeating.

JJ Zaun and Miguel Ortiz also scored goals for Bernards, and Will Luik finished with two assists. Bernards took a 1-0 lead just five minutes into the game on a penalty kick by Ferreira--the first of two PKs that Ferreira converted in the game. The Mountaineers had 2-0 halftime lead, with the other goal coming on a shot by Ferreira off a feed from Luik.

Sign Up for Somerset Hills Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

"We scored quick and early, which is just how we wanted to start. Will set up the second goal. I have been playing with him really ever since I've been playing soccer," Ferreira said. "So we have a connection out there. I just hit it as hard as I could."

LaSpada, who was late joining the team photo because he was eating a post-game piece of birthday cake, said that establishing the early lead was vital.

"We wanted that first goal," LaSpada said. "We moved JJ Zaun around, because we knew if we could shut down their No. 10 and he couldn't feed, that we could pressure them. So we moved JJ and Will Luik higher up the field, and Sean Doran, our marking back, marked their big kid to the point that he didn't want any part of the game anymore. And Miguel Ortiz and Nico Botti did a great job in midfield."

Steinert (10-2-1) actually spent the first eight minutes or so of the second half in the attacking end, but to no avail, with Bernards goalie Elliot Dietrich keeping the Mercer County team at bay and finishing with 10 saves. About 10 minutes into the second half, Bernards flipped the field and went on the attack.

With 24:40 left, Ferreira was awarded another penalty kick, which he converted to extend the lead to 3-0. Just over a minute later, off a throw-in, Luik flipped a short kick over to Zaun, and Zaun boomed in a shot from 15 yards away on the right side to make it 4-0.

Steinert scored its only goal on a rebound shot with 20:27 left in the game. Ortiz scored the final goal with 2:49 left from 15 yards away after getting a cross from Ferreira.

"Gil had a fantastic game, and he finished well, but the balls that came to him were coming from someone else, so everyone was playing well," LaSpada said. "They all had a great game."

The title that Bernards won encompassed a collection of teams from groups 1, 2 and 3. The Mountaineers defeated a Group 3 team in Steinert.

"Last year, we were the underdogs, but this year, we came in as the team to beat," LaSpada said. "It's different when you've got that bullseye on your back."

"Different" is a word that understates the entire nature of this 2020 season, which began under a shroud of doubt about when and whether the Mountaineers would even get on the field.

"We had just gotten in real good shape in the pre-season when we got shut down because of COVID and had a three-week break," LaSpada said. "So when we did start the season, every day when they came to practice we said, 'This could be your last practice'. Every game could be your last game. We approached every game the same way. We embraced it."

Ferreira said that even though the team was not able to play down to a single state championship (they're ranked No. 5 in the state by NJ.com), this year's title was actually more gratifying.

"This one feels so much better," Ferreira said. "No one's done this twice at Bernards. It was really special to win this on our home field in our own town in front of our fans. We just dedicated ourselves to staying with our teammates and our family and staying safe. Thank God we got to play the whole season."

"This was really like a community season," LaSpada said. "The parents kept their kids at home. They knew it would be great for our community and our school. We said this one's special; no one's ever going to win a regional title like this again. To me this is just as gratifying as last year--especially to play at home."