Three paths, all originating from the same point, are set to converge in the same place Saturday, through the journey their travelers have been on the past two months couldn’t have been more different.
Three Skyland Conference and Somerset County high school girls soccer teams — Bernards, Bridgewater-Raritan and Montgomery — will be vying for NJSIAA group championships today at The College of New Jersey, and perhaps the only thing they have in common is they play in what is widely recognized as the state’s top conference and county for their sport.
The Group IV final, which is slated for 12:30 p.m., features a pair of Skyland Delaware Division foes; teams that are quite familiar with each other and have fought the same wars all season.
For Central Group IV champ and defending state champion Montgomery, which will be facing North 2 champ Bridgewater-Raritan, it’s been a very different experience from the one that ended with four championships and a 23-1-2 record last season. This year’s Cougars (15-4-2) finished tied for third in the conference, were ousted in the county semifinals, but have shaken off key graduation losses, a rash of injuries, and among the most brutal regular-season and county schedules in the state to make an unlikely return to TCNJ.
Losing Marissa Kowalski to a PCL injury, a forward who was being looked toward to help replace the graduated Catrina Atanda and play alongside superstar striker Colby Ciarrocca, and having to play the first four games of the state tournament without star central defender Katherine Lynch, who was out with concussion symptoms, was just two of the challenges that faced Montgomery.
The Cougars were inconsistent at times, showing flashes of brilliance one day and struggling the next, but once the state tournament was underway, a more relaxed group has been playing its best soccer of the season.
Led by Ciarrocca and Jessi Goldman up top, Colleen Gaffey and Michelle Wiltse in the midfield, and with Lynch and Julia Strailey anchoring the defense in front of Rebecca Ravitz, Montgomery is cruising.
“It’s love of team,” said Montgomery coach Jeremy Beardsley, who has announced this, his 15th season, will be his last. “It’s incredible team chemistry. These girls are playing so hard for each other and it’s magical. We really are a bunch of individuals that together you make a very special group. Together we can be champions.”
While Montgomery has had its ups and downs, Bridgewater-Raritan has been as steady as they come.
The Panthers, who are making their first appearance in the Group IV final since 2007, and are seeking their first state championship, it’s been a very simple formula: Make a few runs, try and knock one in, and then let the phenomenal beckline and, arguably, the state’s best keeper do the rest.
Casey Murphy, the 6-foot, Rutgers-bound superstar keeper, anchors the conference’s best defense, a unit, centered by Daniella Greco and Jenny Sitrin that has allowed 0.5 goals per game, as only 14 shots have found the back of the net.
And with all but five of the 15-5-6 Panthers games being decided by more than two goals – all B-R wins – getting a goal or two is usually plenty.
Lauren Hall manages thing from the central midfield, with linemate Kelsey Coulter serving as an attacking center-mid. Both have been major parts of the offense down the stretch, along with Hayley Soriano, who notched the game-winner against Livingston in the semifinals.
And while Bridgewater-Raritan has held Montgomery off the scoreboard in two previous meeting this season — a scoreless regular-season tie and a 2-0 Panthers victory in the county semifinals — B-R is taking nothing for granted against its dangerous rivals.
“We know we can’t hang our hat on that game,” Bridgewater-Raritan coach Chris Gerber said. “Montgomery is Montgomery and they’re always going to be that way. We have to take that win and use it as confidence, but not say we beat them once so we’ll beat them again. We have to have our A-plus game to beat the best. We know it’s going to be tough.”
At the same time, Montgomery isn’t using revenge as extra motivation Saturday.
“I toss it out the window,” Beardsley said. “We’re both different teams (from the last meeting). What it means, maybe, is that we’re more familiar with each other. But if you need extra motivation to play the Group IV final, you need to take up basket weaving or something like that.”
While Montgomery and Bridgewater were getting knocked around in the Delaware Division, Bernards (19-3-2) was cruising through its Valley Division slate, going 11-0-1 to repeat as champs and carrying the second-best goals-scored average in the conference (3.2) next to Somerville’s 3.4.
Led, offensively, by Montana Sutton, who is one of the conference’s premier goal scorers, along with Lucy Grey, Emily Maheras and Laura Galli, and on defense by Maddie Auerbacher, Andrea Scaliti, Emma Grey, and Brooke Savoy, the Mountaineers will be making their first-ever appearance in the Group II final, 5:30 p.m. today against Rumson-Fair Haven.
And while winning the conference was a given since opening day, the goal Bernards had set its sights on was the section. Once that was accomplished, the rest is just a bonus.
“They don’t even feel the pressure right now,” said coach Chris Habermas, who moved Mehares up to center forward late in the season, sparking the current nine-game unbeaten streak. “They’re playing with confidence and an air of relaxation, and it works for them. We call it the gravy. We won the section and all this is just gravy. They’re on cloud nine right now.”