SUMMIT, NJ - A triumvirate of goals in the first half -- including two in just a tick under a minute -- proved decisive as the Summit High School Boys Varsity Soccer Team beat Cranford, 4-1, at Tatlock Park and advanced to the NJSIAA North 2, Group 3 semifinals.
There, fourth-seeded Maroon and White will take on number-one seed Mendham, who came from behind to defeat eighth-seeded Middletown North, 3-2. The Hilltoppers will take on the Minutemen November 7 in Mendham with the match set to kick-off at 4 p.m.
Summit and Cranford had met twice already this season, with each side winning 2-1 on the other team's turf. From a confidence and match-management standpoint, the first goal on the day would be huge and, just seven minutes in, the boys from the 07901 got the all important breakthrough.
A right-side free kick from senior Captain Andres Chacon was not fully cleared by the Cougars, and Summit's Cole Schneider headed the ball back into the mixer. Rattling around the six-yard box, the ball fell to senior captain Liam Galligan who used several soccer-legal parts of his anatomy -- the last being his noggin -- to lift the ball over Cranford goalkeeper Andrew Rojo.
Up 1-nil, Summit was enjoying a good spell of possession and limiting the visitors ability to create any dangerous chances, save a few crosses that the Hilltoppers' goalkeeper James Ford collected, one of which dinged off his gloves and onto the bar, but was eventually shuttled away.
The lead was doubled in the 23rd minute when junior Luc Curragh caught up to a through-ball on the left side that was, at best case, a 40-60 proposition.
Defying the percentages, Curragh got a foot on the ball, pushed it past a defender, then got a shoulder between himself and said pursuer and sliced toward goal. As Rojo came out, he was able to side-foot a shot low from seven-yards out that found the back of the net.
Curragh, who seems to really enjoy scoring goals, also appears to have been working on his post-tally celebration as evidenced by the leaping jigsaw fist-punch that followed him slotting home. The junior has, after all, had plenty of practice as the pace and power strike was his 16th goal of the season.
Fifty-nine seconds later, a moment of Summit brilliance appeared to put the game in freezer mode. Galligan chested the ball into the direction of the Cranford penalty area from the right touchline level with the 18-yard box. The ball looped to senior Delmer Argeñal who -- after letting the ball bounce once -- lashed a right-footed half-volley from the right corner of the area that sailed into the top left-hand corner of the goal.
It was Argeñal's 21st goal of the season, it was a 'wow' moment, and it was 3-nil Summit.
If good feelings could be bottled, Summit could have opened a Tap Room. Cranford was mondo deflated and the only thing between the Hilltoppers and the semifinals appeared to be time.
The outcome looked even more certain when the scoreline remained unchanged when halftime arrived. Another 40-minute performance that was even remotely close to the one they had just delivered and Summit would be home and dry.
But Cranford -- in every sport -- competes. Like mad. And, in this instance, form held true.
An upper-body injury suffered by the Cougars' Kevin Donovan resulted in a lengthy delay -- Donovan was eventually helped off the pitch by medical personnel -- and, after the restart, the visitors got on the scoreboard and then things -- from a Hilltopper Nation perspective -- got real nervy, real fast.
Unmarked and picking up a rebound on the doorstep, the Cougars' Michael Carracino scored in the 51st minute and, two minutes later, another Cranford attempt from the left side rolled just inches past Ford's right post.
The Hilltoppers swagger was gone, the Cougars were mounting increasing pressure and, suddenly, the clock seemed to be moving at 33 1/3 RPM in a 78 RPM world.
Summit sat deeper in their end -- something they will not be able to get away with if they hope to find joy in the semis and beyond -- and a flow of dangerous half-chances followed for Cranford.
After gaining a toe-hold on the flow of the match, the Hilltoppers took the game into the final ten minutes and then got another strong individual effort to add the 'delivered' part to the 'signed, sealed and delivered' aspiration.
Junior Matt Kohaut kept scrapping along the left touchline and won, lost, and won back the ball. His service into the box found Curragh who did not disappoint. There were but just under six minutes left, and Summit led 4-1.
A few chippy moments aside, the match uneventfully wound down to its conclusion, and the Hilltoppers could look back on a win-win day: they played a robust 40 minutes which served as a template of what they need to do for 80 minutes -- and perhaps longer -- moving forward; and they survived a tepid, reactive 40 minutes which starkly showed them what they cannot do against next-level opposition.
That head-to-head upgrade comes in four days time, as Summit -- now 15-6 on the season -- travels to face Mendham in the NJSIAA North 2, Group 3 semifinals November 7 at 4 p.m.