By Edward Kensik
For Montclair Local
The difference in Montclair Kimberley’s defeat in the NJSIAA North East Group F state final might have come at the end, and at the beginning.
On paper the top-seeded Lady Cougars dropped a 4-3 decision in the shootout at the end of a 1-1 draw with second-seeded Immaculate Heart Academy in the Sunday, Nov. 22, battle in Montclair.
IHA’s Allie Zitelli’s shot at the end was the difference in the penalty kicks, as the shootout had the Lady Cougars’ youth compared to IHA’s experience.
“They had much more experienced people taking the shots,” said MKA head coach Jordan Raper.
IHA had three seniors compared to three sophomores for MKA as part of the fivesome for each team on the penalty shots. The IHA keeper was a senior, compared to MKA freshman keeper Salange Bell.
It was a bittersweet ending for Raper and the Lady Cougars, who finished with a sterling 13-1-1 record. “We did all we could do, but unfortunately it didn’t end up with a win,” Raper said. “We had a great season, and we wanted to go into the Thanksgiving break with a win.”
But while the shootout decided the non-public title, it probably was the first couple of minutes of the match that set the tone.
MKA sophomore striker Bella Douglas got through the IHA defense for a breakaway and bore down on the Eagles goal with the keeper, Lauryn Muckler, coming forward; Muckler blocked the shot.
“I thought if she scored that we would have won the game,” Raper said. “I think they (IHA) would have played a different game, and we would have the advantage.”
Instead IHA would strike first on the scoreboard, as their top scorer, Alexandra Barry, broke through on a scramble and scored. MKA keeper Bell actually stopped Barry’s shot, but the ball deflected in and crossed the goal line.
Instead of a tie game, IHA led 1-0, 12 minutes in.
It was a rare goal for the MKA defense and Bell to give up this season. The Lady Cougars surrendered only five goals in the entire 15-game season and had 11 shutouts.
While the Eagles had more control of the possession of the ball in the first half, MKA made some changes at halftime, while IHA played back, looking to win the game 1-0.
“We dropped Bella in the hole and played our game,” Raper said about Douglas, who at times was double- or triple-teamed up front.
The changes, as well as MKA’s aggressiveness, led to their control of the play in the second half.
It was Douglas who made IHA pay, with the help of freshman midfielder Lim Liah.
With 22 minutes remaining in regulation, Liah was taken down by Ashley Lamond in the box, calling for a penalty kick.
And then Douglas fired a shot by Muckler to tie the score.
Montclair Kimberley kept control for the rest of the game and also had the better of the opportunities.
But the Lady Cougars could not finish off and get that magic shot during the balance of the second half and both overtimes.
Coming into the game Montclair Kimberley was on a hot streak, with 12 wins in a row and having outscored their opponents 54-3. The lone loss on the 2020 schedule was at rival Montclair, 1-0, on Oct. 6.
To get to the final, MKA defeated another rival, Mount St. Dominic, 3-0, in the North East Group F semifinals at home on Nov. 20.
For this season, with revised state playoffs, the NJSIAA put together the sections based on geography, especially with the non-public schools. In previous seasons, MKA would have been in the Non-Public B North while IHA and Mount St. Dominic would have been part of the Non-Public A North since they have larger enrollments than MKA.
But for Lady Cougars head coach Raper it was special just to get through the season, particularly with other schools shutting sports programs down because of COVID. “I think it was just great to play this season and to finish the season,” he said.