UNION, NJ - The sunset in the west—creating a gorgeous vista above the visitors’ stands at Kean University’s Alumni Field—was portending its own spectacular finish, just as the second half of Sunday’s high-level NJSIAA State Group 4 boys soccer state final between Washington Township and West Orange was beginning to wind down, with the Mountaineers still trying for the equalizer in a match they had trailed since the 22nd minute, when the South Jersey juggernaut had taken a 1-0 lead.
And, even though it was a contest that was not as offensive-minded as, say, the Non-Public, North A state sectional semifinal when Delbarton edged Seton Hall Prep, 3-2, in a thriller on Nov. 10, the Group 4 title match between two of the very best public schools in the state was still an exquisite display of technical skill, tenacity and defensive-minded prowess. Although the final result was not the desired one for Essex County soccer aficionados, the caliber of soccer was certainly first-rate.
Washington Township (25-1), a side which has gone 51-1 the past two seasons while copping back-to-back Group 4 crowns, came away with a hard-earned, 1-0, triumph over West Orange (21-2). Washington Township, which was not the pre-season pick to win the rigorous Super Essex Conference-American Division (SHP was), not only wound up undefeated in SEC regular season action in one of the state’s toughest divisions, but then resurrected itself after an Essex County Tournament semifinal defeat to Livingston and ran off a string of impressive state tourney victories all the way to this past Sunday’s hotly-contested final.
“The difference in the game was that they were a little tougher in the box,” said Doug Nevins, West Orange’s 16th-year head coach. “At different points I’m thinking, ‘This long throw-in, that corner, wow, that’s the ball, this is it,’ but it just wasn’t going to be, and on other days the ball goes in, and that’s the hard part.”
“I thought for the first 20:00 they were the better team, and then we began to show our quality, but they deserved to win because they simply kept us from scoring,” said Nevins.
Washington Township scored the only goal off a flurry of quick action in front of West Orange off a corner kick by midfielder Collin Yeiter. West Orange attempted to head the ball out, but the Minutemen’s outstanding forward Ryan Loger, playing with a badly sprained left ankle, utilized his left foot to deliver the ball past Mountaineer keeper Diego Pedrido and into the back of the net with 18:45 remaining in the first half.
“In games like this, it’s usually one set piece or one great play and they were able to get that one goal,” said Nevins. “Then, they were always in a good position to block a shot and there were a lot of good defensive plays by them.”
“My kids played their hearts out but you have to give them credit because they came out and played really hard right away,” he said. “We wanted to try and get through the first 20 minutes and then they scored shortly after that.”
“Then, after that, once we settled, I thought the rest of the game we controlled what we wanted to do, but there is a reason they are 25-1; they’re a really good defensive team, very athletic and very tough,” added Nevins.
West Orange had two excellent chances to score, the first coming just five minutes in when standout senior forward Kamsi Udodi got free with the ball in the 18-yard area in front of the Washington Township goal, but just couldn’t deliver the direct shot on net needed as his swing with the right leg sent the ball wide left.
Then, much later in the match, with just over 12 minutes remaining, the Mountaineers’ superb defender Andrei Rosu found himself with a good opportunity in close but again the shot was wide.
“’Kam,’ early on, had two cracks at it and Andrei had his chance at the end and other days those balls go in, and that’s the hard part, but our kids kept battling and I’m proud of them for a great effort,” said Nevins.
“We had a real nice group of seniors and juniors, a great mix and in the pre-season, if you said we’d do this, I would not have thought so; but we started the season real well, had that one bump in the road in the counties, fixed things and then had a great run at the end,” he said.
“It’s disappointing to lose a state final, but they are a very good team, and hopefully our juniors gain from this experience although I hate saying goodbye to a great group of seniors,” said Nevins.
“When the two best teams get together, someone has to win and someone has to lose unless you tie; but that’s soccer,” he added.
West Orange will bid adieu next June to a number of terrific seniors, led by Temple-bound center midfielder Zach Brown, one of the very best players in Essex County, along with Udodi, who was a top scoring threat all season long; hustling midfielder Zach Ames; defender Ryan Rosa; and the sturdy midfielder Dan Romain. But key juniors such as Pedrido, Rosu, Pancho Pozzoli, Dillon Reitberger and Bryce Millington will all return so the proverbial beat should go on for a very solid West Orange soccer program. More days of a bright sun rising on another successful Mountaineer season certainly appear to be in the offing.