SUMMIT, NJ - Coming into their match against Westfield at Tatlock Park, the Summit High School Boys Varsity Soccer Team was riding a four-match winning streak that had seen them beat Union, Plainfield, Ridge and Linden by a combined score of 16-3.
Taking nothing away from the Hilltoppers -- who took care of their business in workmanlike, and sometimes spectacular, fashion over the span -- or the Farmers, Cardinals, Red Devils and Tigers -- who collectively have accumulated a 7-32-1 record this season -- the boys from 07901 were about to step up in class in a big way when they took the pitch against the Blue Devils, who entered the match with a shiny 8-1-1 mark and a Top 20 state ranking.
Think of it as playing "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" video game on Master Mode v. Normal Mode. Yes, the match against the Union County top-tier program would be faster, significantly more physical and exponentially more intense. In a nutshell, a heckuva lot harder.
And, the byproduct lived up to that prediction.
Competing in a match that arguably had more electricity flowing through it than their previous four encounters combined, the Maroon and White battled for 80 minutes, falling behind twice, leveling things twice, before finally surrounding two goals in the second half and falling to the Blue Devils, 4-2.
A 'neutral' could not realistically argue that Westfield did not run out deserved winners on the day, however a fairly solid point could be made that the Hilltoppers were in the match the entire way and, at 2-2 in the second half, had a window of time and opportunity in which they could have metaphorically grabbed the contest by the scruff of its neck and got the victory.
A loss is a loss, but Summit should have exited the Tatlock Park turf knowing that they are a quality side that is encroaching on the mythical 'next level', which should bode well for County Tournament play, the remainder of their regular season, and potentially State Tournament competition.
Westfield -- as they did most of the gray-sky afternoon -- had the majority of the ball in the match's early minutes and looked the more dangerous side. Summit was working hard, but was a half-step late to many balls as the speed upgrade to the match clearly was going to take an adjustment period.
Seven minutes in, Westfield opened the scoring. A cross into the Hilltopper penalty area was not met with veracity by the home side, and the Blue Devils' Andrew Echausse finished from close-in. Knowing that Westfield was fairly airtight defensively -- they had allowed just four goals through their opening 10 matches -- giving away a sloppy goal was taboo for Summit, but their response was beacoup good.
Seventy-five seconds later, the Maroon and White were level on an odd goal that resulted from virtually nothing. Summit's Javier Del Cid speculatively lumped a satellite-high ball from the right flank into the Westfield penalty box. The ball -- descending from thirty feet in the air -- drifted downward on a path that brought it directly in line with the crossbar of the goal.
Not knowing what the geometry of the crossbar might do to the flight of the ball, Westfield goalkeeper Jack Mendelson jumped up to tip it over. The ball and Mendelson's hand and the crossbar formed a synchronistic triangle of touch which caused the orb to drop a foot from the goal line. Summit junior Luc Curragh was first on the scene, and his two-foot tap-in will likely be the easiest goal he will score while representing the Kent Place Boulevard school.
It was a true poacher's goal, which is to say 'well done, son' in striker-speak, and it came against the run of play.
The match then settled into a physical, sometimes chippy flow. Summit was catching up to the pace of the match, the goal settling their nerves and instilling added confidence.
In the 25th minute, a Mendelson goal kick found a gap in the Hilltopper midfield, which turned into an attack posthaste. Two passes later, Tate Kronick found himself racing in on the left side of the the Summit penalty area with a step on his defender. Kronick's left-footed finish was clinical, in the right bottom corner, and the Blue Devils were back in front, 2-1.
Again, Summit responded in short order. Senior Delmer Argeñal got the ball on his favored right foot outside the Westfield penalty area, at the top of the D, and lashed a shot, the ball struck the back of a defender and wrong-footed Mendelson finding the back of the net to the 'Keeper's right as he was moving left. A skosh of good fortune, for sure, but the match was tied, 2-2.
The remainder of the first half and the onset of the second returned saw the match come off the boil a tad, as the stagnant, rather humid weather and the work rate by both teams took its toll.
A Westfield corner kick in the 55th minute supplied the eventual match-winner, the initial volley into the area not cleared with conviction, which gave the Blue Devils several bites at the apple. The final chomp was from Jack Dobosiewicz, who found the back of the net to make it 3-2.
Ten minutes later, the visitors got an important insurance goal when Devon Tikku popped up in the Hilltopper box and scored off a loose ball.
Summit pushed hard to the final whistle, but Mendelson wasn't severely tested the rest of the way.
The Hilltoppers, 6-4 on the season, now enter Union County Tournament play with a 'Summit Derby' first-round match versus Oratory Prep October 7. Kick-off at Tatlock Park is set for 2 p.m.