The month of November is Harrison’s time of the year.
Boys soccer coach Mike Rusek and his staff stress to their players each season that they’re not looking to go undefeated in September because the goal for one of the state’s most historic programs is to be unbeaten when the state tournament rolls around right after Halloween.
“This is our time,” he said. “We feel we should be playing deep into the season, and we always feel like every team we have is capable of doing it. This year is no different.”
Back on Sept. 12, the Blue Tide suffered a 2-0 defeat to Lyndhurst, which ended up being only one of two losses all season long – the other came in the Hudson County Tournament semis against Kearny.
About a month later on Oct. 8, Harrison avenged its loss and came away with a 2-0 victory of its own.
Now on Tuesday afternoon, the two programs squared off in a rubber match, with the winner moving on to the state sectional final. The Blue Tide entered the game with a perfect 13-0 record on their home-field, and they wanted to make sure it was 14 wins instead of one heartbreaking loss.
Harrison struck first in the 15th minute when junior Mustapha Sowe buried the game’s opening goal and the top-seeded Blue Tide never looked back as they buried two more goals and played suffocating defense in a 3-0 shutout victory over No. 4 seed Lyndhurst in the semifinal round of the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 2 state tournament.
Harrison’s game plan centered around dominating possession with its midfielders and captains Steven Espinoza and Jairo Araujo.
“If you have a good amount of possession of the game, good things are going to happen,” Rusek said. “That’s kind of our philosophy. If we have control of the ball 70 percent of the time, then 70 percent of the chances are going to be with us. If you limit them to 30 percent, then that’s a good day.”
That’s exactly what Harrison did in this game. The Blue Tide controlled the ball, which led to more opportunities than their opponent.
On Sowe’s game-opening goal, Araujo sent a beautiful cross into the lap of fellow midfielder Joao Toscano, who then snuck the ball inside the box at Sowe’s foot, and he did the rest when he ripped a shot into bottom left corner of the net.
Seven minutes later, Sowe was on the receiving end of a long pass over the defense, and when he attempted to head the ball on a high bounce, the Lyndhurst goalkeeper ran into Sowe and a penalty was awarded to the Blue Tide. Senior forward Allan Melo followed by drilling the PK, and the Blue Tide held a 2-0 advantage 23 minutes into the game.
At the start of the second half, Lyndhurst actually put together some golden opportunities that could have easily changed the outcome of this game, but Blue Tide junior goalkeeper Bryan Yllescas came away with some unbelievable saves and kept the opposition off the scoreboard.
Lyndhurst strikers Bryan Cosman and Enrique Mutsoli had shot attempts in the 55th and 59th minutes, respectively, but Yllescas made two diving stops which kept the Blue Tide ahead by two goals.
“He’s done that all year for us,” Rusek said of Yllescas. “Sometimes he may only get five shots on him in a game, but a lot of times there’s some dangerous ones in there. If they took seven or eight shots on us today, four of them could have been goals and he made sure they weren’t. He earned that shutout.”
In the 62nd minute, Harrison junior Yerik Callupe sent a cross into the box for senior midfielder Dylan Leon, who one-timed the shot into the net for the Blue Tide and buried Lyndhurst’s chances at any comeback opportunity.
Harrison (20-2) will return to familiar stomping grounds when it hosts second-seeded Bernards in the sectional final on Friday afternoon. At this stage of the season last year, the Blue Tide fell at the hands of Hackettstown, and two seasons ago, Dover came away with the win over Harrison for the sectional crown.
“We always tell our kids year-in and year-out that this is our time of the year,” Rusek said. “Last season, as great as Omar Sowe was, we just sat back and watched him go get us a goal and finish the job. We told the kids this year, that offensively we feel like we have three or four guys who can get it done. Even though we lost one of the greatest players I ever coached, we are more of an all-around dangerous team because we have a few guys who we can turn to rather than just relying on him. I hope that we pull off the win on Friday because we are overall a better team than we were last year.
“We feel like the advantage is with us. They have to come to our field, and we feel like they have to come take the trophy from us. This is ours to win. We haven’t lost on our home-field all year long. We have one last game on this field, we want to go out for our seniors as winners.”