The atmosphere hovering above the Gill St. Bernard’s School’s soccer field for Saturday’s quarterfinal match between the Knights and archival Bernards felt more like championship caliber.
With 700 spectators sprawled across the hill opposite the players’ benches, and boisterous contingencies from each school trading banter back and forth, the setting could have become rather pressurized for a young group of players.
And that appeared to be exactly the case for the visiting Mountaineers, while the hosts clearly thrived off the spirit of their largest regular-season crowd in recent memory.
Senior defender James Reiner converted a flick off of a long throw-in from freshman defender Cam Miller to break a scoreless tie in the game’s 50th minute, and senior forward Justin Durcan sent a penalty kick off his left foot wide to the left of Bernards’ keeper Dylan Kahn for a second goal with 19:02 left to play and fourth-seeded Gill St. Bernard’s dealt the fifth-seeded Mountaineers a 2-0 blanking to move into the Somerset County Tournament semifinals.
For the Knights (12-0-1), it will be their first trip back to the SCT semifinals since 2008. They’re aiming for the program’s first SCT title, and only its third return trip to the championship game. They’ll pay a visit to top-seeded Watchung Hills at Tozier Field on Saturday for that right.
“With our young team, we’ve grown up throughout the course of the past couple weeks, and you can tell by our style of play,” Reiner said. “We’re starting to knock the ball around. We’re getting fluid movement up top. Everyone is starting to hit their form, and we’re starting to put balls into the back of the net.”
After the teams played and evenly-contested first half, Gill took the bull by the horns after the intermission. The Knights became much more physical and their defense locked down like a penitentiary in their defensive third.
As the game progressed, Reiner, Gill coach Tony Bednarsky, and Bernards coach Joe Laspada began sensing that Reiner would eventually find the net off the throw-in, a play that’s become both he and Miller’s bread-and-butter scoring connection all season. Reiner and Miller were close on two separate occasions in the first half.
“It’s nothing different than what they’ve tried to do to us in the past,” a clearly frustrated Laspada said. “We didn’t come out with enough desire and didn’t put forth a good enough effort today.”
“That (Miller to Reiner) is a go-to for us,” said Bednarsky. “That’s probably the fifth or sixth time we’re converted that set for a goal this season.”
Coming into this season, Bednarsky admitted that his roster this year would be the youngest in his 25-year tenure. However, faced Saturday for the first time this season with a win-or-go-home prospect, the Knights played free, loose and aggressive.
“We’re definitely trying to prepare them (underclassmen),” said Reiner. “You can say whatever you want, but with that crowd over there, these guys are just so mentally tough. They’ve played big games (referring to the veterans), and I think they’re very focused, and they did a great job staying within the lines and not worrying about the crowd.”
“These boys are wise beyond their years,” said Knights’ senior defender Craig Pilla. “They keep their heads up, never get rattled, and they’re very mature for their age.”
Gill’s two goals matched the entire total that Bernards (10-1-1) had allowed coming into the contest. After playing to a 1-1 draw earlier this season, these clubs will meet again on Tuesday with the Skyland Conference Valley Division title up for grabs.
“We have to come out with much more energy and effort Tuesday,” said Laspada.
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Goal/Assists: GSB – Reiner/Miller 50:00, Durcan (PK) 59:58.
Saves: GSB – Schreer 5; B – Kahn 10.