UNION, NJ -- With one goal by the slimmest of margins from virtually point-blank range, and another from halfway across the pitch 50 yards away, the Bernards boys soccer team scored twice in the second half and junior goalie Elliot Dietrich posted his 14th shutout of the season as the Mountaineers defeated Delran, 2-0, Sunday night to win the NJSIAA Group 2 state championship before a huge fan base of chilled, screaming loyalists at Kean University.
The title is Bernards' second state championship in the last four years. The Mountaineers won the Group 2 crown in 2016.
After a scoreless first half, goals by sophomore Nico Botti and freshman Gregory Ferreira put Bernards (19-2-1) in control, and Dietrich did the rest, with some huge clutch plays by Will Luik and Sean Doran on the back line helping preserve the lead.
Botti was credited with the tiebreaking goal with 31:23 left in the second half at the conclusion of a scramble in front of the Delran net. After a Bernards corner kick from the left side initiated the action, the ball was contested by a mass of bodies in the box before Botti got his foot on it and the ball crept across the line to give the Mountaineers a 1-0 lead.
"I was on their keeper, and when I turned, he saved the ball," Botti said. "I had my back turned to the goal, I volleyed it, then the defender hit it and it crossed the line. We weren't projected to win the last three games (by statewide media outlets), but we did."
With 9:34 left in the game, Gregory Ferreira, a ninth-grader, set up for a free kick from the 40-yard line, near the left football hash marks. With the wind at his back, Ferreira unloaded a soaring kick that took off like a Pete Alonso home run ball, sailing all the way on frame and just beyond the Delran goalie's outstretched hands, over his head and to the back of the net for a 50-yard goal and a 2-0 Bernards lead.
Five minutes later, Dietrich saved a head-on laser shot from 20 yards straightaway to preserve the shutout. It was the last of a number of spectacular saves the Bernards keeper has made in the last several games.
"The wind was tough in the first half, but I didn't see as many shots as I did Thursday night," said Dietrich, referring to Bernards' 2-1 semifinal victory over Jefferson. "Our back line did a good job once (Delran) crossed midfield. They can shoot the ball. The whole tournament we've been underdogs, but we deserve this more than anyone."
Dietrich, who spoke while several teammates yelled, "This is the best goalkeeper in the nation," may not have been tested as often as he was in the win over Jefferson, but he still made his share of clutch stops. He made seven saves in the championship game.
Likewise, Bernards' midfield controlled matters more decisively Sunday night against a very physical Delran team (17-5-2) than it had against Jefferson, and the Mountaineers were stellar in the back with Doran, Miguel Ortiz and Jack Warlick, as well as Gregory, the youngest of three Ferreiras (one brother and one cousin also play) on the team.
With 22:30 left and Bernards ahead, 1-0, Doran, a sophomore, made a solid, emphatic block of a Delran shot from the right side about 15 yards away. Seven minutes later, an apparent Delran goal that would have tied the game was waved off because the player passing the ball to the shooter was ruled to have been over the back line before he passed the ball.
Then, with 12 minutes left, another scary moment for Bernards: Dietrich came out from inside the net to help, and before a Delran player could take advantage of the momentary empty net opportunity, Luik cleared the ball out of the box with a header that sent the ball back toward midfield and out of danger.
"All last year, I played center back," said Luik, who has made a remarkably fast recovery from a severely fractured lower leg just over six months ago. "I'm not the best header there is, but when I saw Elliot come out there, I just dropped back and knew I had to get the ball cleared."
Luik, one of at least 10 major contributors who will return next season, said, "We learned our lesson from before, from past games. Tonight, we just had to play our game, and we did."
The state championship was the fifth under head coach Joe LaSpada, who has been the head of the Bernards soccer program for 40 years. Bernards defeated Newton for the 2016 Group 2 championship.