David Gill and P.J. DiBenedetto shared a quiet moment after Chatham’s 4-1 loss to Northern Highlands in the NJSIAA Group III semifinal on Tuesday night. The two seniors embraced sadly, and agreed that despite the immediate result, their four years playing soccer together had been time to treasure.
The Cougars met their preseason goal, rising from the 12th seed to win the North 2 Group III trophy. And along the way, the large senior class made sure the younger players had a sense of history.
This group advanced to both the Morris County Tournament and NJSIAA Group III finals as freshmen, losing both. The following year, Gill — then a sophomore — scored the lone goal as Chatham defeated Delbarton to win the MCT, a week after losing in the sectional final.
After a disappointing junior season, the Cougars had a slow start this fall. After opening 1-3-2 with three double-overtime games, head coach Mark Maka sat the players down for a philosophy-tinged meeting. Chatham “brought a whole new energy to practice, which really sparked us,” according to Gill.
The Cougars won five of their next seven games, all by shutout. The dream of another trophy became a bit more clear.
“(Our tradition) really put things into perspective, and showed them how much it meant for this team,” DiBenedetto said. “(Our seniors) know how to approach this kind of game. We used the big games we’d played in in the past as a winning experience, and tried to bring it to practice and into this game as well. It’s huge.”
Chatham had won six games in a row, including two NJSIAA Tournament clean sheets, leading into the semifinal. Midfielders Rudy Mamary and Danny Aversano tallied early in each half, launching Northern Highlands to victory.
The Highlanders have won nine straight games and are undefeated (16-0-3) since Sept. 21. Northern Highlands will face Allentown in the Group III final on Sunday, its first chance at a state championship since 1967.
“It’s a sad way for it to come to an end,” said Gill, who once again scored Chatham’s lone goal with 2:08 remaining on Tuesday.
“It was fun. I’m going to miss it. I couldn’t really ask for more. We did a lot in these four years. It’s a good way to go out with these guys.”