by Andrew Garda
The Montclair High School boys soccer team’s 2017 season ended on a disappointing note with a loss on a frigid evening to Kearny High School in the NJSIAA North Jersey 1, Group 4 championship game.
“That was a tough one,” said head coach Toure Weaver as he watched his team practice on a recent morning. “Because I thought we did everything defensively we wanted to in that game and it was that unlucky goal we let in [to tie]. But as the pressure built up, I thought we could have possessed the ball a little bit more.”
Last season, the Mounties were often dominant defensively, shutting out 11 of their 17 opponents, including a string of seven straight games in October, and allowed 11 goals all year, the best mark in the county. But they were tripped up in both the Essex County and NJSIAA tournaments.
This season, Weaver wants his team to avoid the mistakes that led to those trophies getting away from them.
“So making sure that in those really intense moments, in big games, that we can still have composure and possess the ball,” he said. “And when I think about things in the county tournament too, there were some defensive breakdowns we can’t let occur.”
Weaver wants his team to get better each year and each day.
That’s not easy when you lose some quality players.
Gone are seniors like goalie Rowan O’Brien and defender Salvador Pliego, who is in Mexico getting ready to play professionally this coming winter.
Weaver thinks it’s actually a strength, as new blood gets a chance to show what they can do.
“I’m excited. There’s a lot of spots with new guys coming up from the lower levels, and guys who didn’t play as much last year have an opportunity to step up,” Weaver said. “This is a year where there is a lot of opportunity, guys are competing for different spots and to me that’s exciting.”
Senior captain Chris Masur has been pleasantly surprised with the talent showing up and the depth of the team.
“This year, I thought we weren’t going to be so deep. So I thought initially, the key would be keeping guys healthy. Making sure the players who step on the field are fit enough to play an entire game,” Masur said.
Then he showed up for preseason practices and saw a lot more players than he expected.
“I didn’t realize how deep we were until we got into the preseason. There are four or five sophomores who have stepped up and done well, and even scored goals for us in scrimmages. So that lets us get extra minutes of rest for starters and keep our team healthy overall.”
Despite the influx of young talent, Weaver needs his veterans to step up.
“We have a really good core of guys who went through all the playoffs last year, so we have a good amount of guys who have been through it,” he said. “Chris Masur, Mason Davisson, Phillip Cubeddu, Evan O’Brien, who is a junior but basically started every game. William Buttner. So there’s all those guys have been through it and they need to take this team on their shoulders.”
One person who the team didn’t expect to lose so soon was Pliego. A coach on the field on defense, Pliego was always set to leave school earlier than spring graduation, but early this year he decided to finish high school online while in Mexico so he could train and be ready to play professionally.
“Yeah, we miss Salvadore a lot,” Weaver said. “He’s already written the whole team a letter, wishing us luck. It meant a lot to the guys.”
So Weaver plans to reload, not reboot.
“I believe we have guys here who can step up. It’s not easy to do, but we have talent here and guys with dedication that want a shot. We love defense. We have guys here that want to be a part of that.”
Another change is in goal, where Rowan O’Brien played very well last season.
Now the team turns to Ben Middlemiss, a tall, lanky senior with great range between the posts.
“He put in the work last year. He got some varsity playing time last year also,” Weaver said of his goaltender. “You’d look down the line, and in my mind, he’s always been there next. So far this preseason, Ben has shown everything that we’ve expected of him. Once again, we’re losing O’Brien, I think Ben can step in his shoes and do a really good job.”
“I think it’s going to be all about integrating all the younger guys that have come up to the varsity level,” Masur said. “Because previously, we had a bunch of older guys, and so we lost a bunch of key players from last year’s team. But all the younger guys are stepping up and we just really need to bring them along with us.”