The Hunterdon Central girls soccer team repeated as Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex Tournament champions on Saturday after defeating Newton 4-2 in a shootout.
The Red Devils (17-3) were making their fourth appearance in five years in the final while the Braves (20-1) had never advanced past the quarterfinals before this season and were playing in their very first final.
“My girls stepped up and they just went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the state,” Newton coach Jake Mull said. “We were supposed to be a big underdog and I think we showed them that we’re on the same level as they are.”
In the shootout, Riley Coopersmith, Brie Pavol, Emily Pizzuto and Christine Tack all made their shots for Hunterdon Central. Newton only made two of four, with Carly Bresney and Alyssa Cronin scoring goals.
The shootout wasn’t indicative of the way the game was played for either team. Both the Braves and Red Devils played their hearts out during regulation and the two overtimes.
At the start of the game, Newton came out hot with Cronin taking a majority of the shots on net. As the first half wore on, the Red Devils started to find their rhythm and it was a back-and-forth contest.
But with under two minutes to play, the Braves’ Carly Zdanek went down with an injury and had to be taken off the field in an ambulance and the game was halted for at least 20 minutes.
“It wasn’t the timeout that hurt us, it was Carly Zdanek, she’s just a fabulous player, so fast, so quick and a lot of our offense works off of her,” Mull said. “When we lost her, we had to change the way we played. And the girls did, they did change the way they played, but she’s just such a great weapon and to play the whole half without her, it hurt us.”
After the timeout and a five-minute halftime, Hunterdon Central came out at the start of the second half and took control of the momentum, taking 10 shots to Newton’s one.
“The injury timeout, it was just an awkward lapse of time and we weren’t really sure what was happening,” Hunterdon Central defenseman Yota Sfondouris said. “We had to keep our heads into it. We knew that they would be motivated by it and we just knew that we had to come out twice as hard, twice as strong and twice as focused.”
Despite the onslaught by the Red Devils, Newton held fast and kept Hunterdon Central off the board, thanks to a number of great saves by keeper Morgan Euston. Overall, Euston made 17 saves while Red Devils goalie Bristol Pizzuto made five.
Hunterdon Central also did a great job of shutting down Cronin, Newton’s leading scorer, while the Braves kept the Red Devils’ two top players, Alli DeLuca and Tack, scoreless.
“We knew that she was a talented player coming in, but the whole team came together and talked about her and we just passed her from player to player and we were just aware of where she was on the field,” Sfondouris said of Cronin. “Everyone just did their job and stepped up and made sure she didn’t get the ball.”
For Hunterdon Central, Jamie Gentile was named Most Valuable Player.
Up next for both teams is the state tournament, which starts on Monday. Mull and his players know that their season isn’t over, and are looking to leave this game behind them and focus on the next game.
“We didn’t back down, we did a fabulous job, and this isn’t the end of the season,” Mull said. “The boys last year lost in this tournament too and they went on to the state finals and we have to do the same thing.”
The Red Devils meanwhile, are content to bask in their victory for the time being.
“I wanted the result to show how hard we worked because I think that we deserve to win in the end,” Sfondouris said. “I’m so happy, winning it two years in a row is just amazing, to be a senior and to leave this legacy is just unreal.”