CLIFFSIDE PARK, NJ - It would be easy to say that the carriage that had transported the Summit High School Boys Varsity Soccer Team all the way to a share of the Union County Tournament title and then onto to NJSIAA North Jersey Group 2, Section 3 Tournament semifinals finally morphed back into a pumpkin, or in this case the traditional yellow bus with the words 'Morris-Union Jointure Commission' emblazoned in black letters on the side.
But that would be wrong from the get-go.
That's because these Hilltoppers, while massively exceeding expectations under first-year Head Coach Ben Stuart, were never really a good metaphoric fit for the Cinderella label. True, not many -- surely definitely not many outside of the Summit High School Boys Soccer 'family' -- thought they would acheive much this season. But anyone who took a more than a few minutes of their time to hang around the Maroon and White and catch some of their matches could have educated those doubters that -- while underdog is a 'word-brush' they could have been fairly painted with, this was no Cinderella team.
No - too much talent, passion, togetherness and toughness to be Cinderella-like. Plus, they spent the last few months racking up wins and rocking and knocking out some the prep soccer heavyweights, beating Scotch Plains-Fanwood and pushing Elizabeth and Westfield to their limits.
Oh, and then there's that share of the UCT Title thing... beat the Blue Devils in a dramatic PK shoot-out and then draw with the Minutemen after being down 2-nil in the second half? Not exactly Cinderella stuff. Rambo, maybe... Cinderella? Uh-uh.
So while their race to a State Championship is over -- ending two hurdles short of the finish line after the fourth-seeded Hilltoppers fell 3-1 at top-seeded Cliffside Park -- the lasting memory of the season will not be the final whistle in Bergen County but rather the tremendous transformative nature of the journey, led by a new coach and group of student-athletes who, on most days, refused to lose.
Against the Raiders on a cool but pleasant afternoon, Summit started crisply and actually controlled most of the opening 30 minutes. The possession did not equal chances however, and the Hilltoppers always had to be concerned with the quickness of the home team to launch a counter-attack. Two of those 'turn and burn' efforts did happen, the first was weathered via a nice low save from Summit senior goalkeeper Jake Maslin, but the second -- a near carbon copy of the first -- was not, with Gabriel Costa firing home from the right side of the penalty area in the 17th minute.
After falling behind, Summit took a bit of a standing eight count before regaining its footing, and the half ended with Ciffside Park holding the 1-nil lead.
The Hilltoppers regressed a bit at the start of the final 40, and were nearly punished for it several times. Surviving, they climbed back into the match and then leveled the score when sophomore Ethan Harris played a perfectly-weighted pass that freshman Dan Farberov took in stride with a step on his defender. Entering the penalty area, Farberov left-footed the ball low to the goalkeeper's left and the match was tied in the 48th minute.
Summit was now buzzing and it appeared the comeback kids were at it again, but Cliffside Park collected a loose ball in the center of the pitch in the 59th minute and -- two passes later -- the ball was in the back of the Summit goal. Erik Moreira doing the honors from the left side of the 18-yard box.
Still, down 2-1 with 20-plus minutes to go was not daunting, but then a handball that deemed to have stopped a certain Raiders goal resulted in a penalty being awarded and a red card to Summit. Carlos Escobar stepped up and drove the ball with his left foot past Maslin, the senior captain diving to his right as the ball went the other way.
True to their nature, the Hilltoppers kept grinding but, in the end, the superior side on the day was moving on. For Summit, the short-term disappointment of defeat should surely morph into the lasting satisfaction that it feels like this team, this year, under this coach created a quantum leap forward for the Summit High School Boys Soccer program.
Afterwards, Stuart said that the commitment and unity of the team is what allowed it to elevate beyond expectations. "As we started to get results this season our confidence grew, and we realized that not only could we compete with the best teams, but we could beat them. The season was a true team effort. Every player and person who supported the program contributed to the success we had. There was a tremendous amount of hard work and trust, and it was always about the group. We had a phenomenal run, and we wanted to keep it going, but the better team won today.
Summit ends its season with a record of 13-5-4 and a share of the Union County Tournament Championship.