The Somerset County Boys Soccer Tournament final was like a tactical chess match; a strategic perfection of give and take that left more to be desired.
After 100 minutes of soccer Saturday afternoon, no outright winner could be decided as top-seeded Pingry and third-seeded Hillsborough played to a 1-1 draw and were crowned co-champions at Manville High School.
For Pingry, it hoists the crown for a county record 18th time, while Hillsborough has now won a co-championship four times.
“I always think you want the championship (for yourself),” said Pingry coach Miller Buglieri. “If you don’t have it (for yourself), it’s somewhat hollow. But you can lose it (the game) too.”
“I have to tell you we’re a little disappointed because we wanted to win this game,” Hillsborough coach Eric Puma said. “With all due respect to Pingry, we came here to win.”
Both teams played to their strengths. The Big Blue (14-1-3) dominated the possession and scoring opportunities, while the Raiders (13-3-3) relied on their size, physicality and defense.
Ironically, it was Hillsborough that got on the board first. Junior forward Danny Pankulics struck a beautiful goal. He hit it from 10 yards out to just inside the top corner of the near-side post.
“It was important that we stayed confident and played together and they did that today,” Puma said. “Our ability to mentally stay in the game and stay confident was most important.”
But as Pingry did in the semifinals against Bridgewater-Raritan – rallying from a two-goal deficit with 15 minutes to play – they battled back.
In the midst of several good runs at the net, they earned a throw-in at around the 10-yard line. After Robert DeAlmeida tossed the ball in the box, senior defender Henry Flugstad-Clarke flicked the ball to senior midfielder Christian Fechter who headed the ball inside the backside post in the 59th minute.
“The feeling last year (losing the county final) was devastating because we thought we could have one,” Fechter said, “but coming back here this year and fighting back from one goal down was really something.”
Fechter said that Hillsborough’s defense was one of the best units he’s ever played against.
“As a team defensively, those are our strengths,” said Puma. When you play a team like (Pingry) you counter, but they were still able to hang in there no question. We were on the back foot for quite a bit. We bent but didn’t break, so I’m proud of my guys for that.”
“I think everyone gave their max performance, and I don’t think we’ve ever played that tough defensively as a team,” Hillsborough senior defender Derek Stiles said. “We went out there and did what we did the entire season: played great team defense.”