MIDLAND PARK — Scott Ernest saw it in their eyes.
The attitude was different. The veterans were ready. And the outlook in Midland Park was brighter than ever.
The coach’s preseason prediction has turned out to be true now that his team is on the brink of a championship. The Panthers dominated Wednesday in a 6-1 rout over Saddle Brook, earning a spot in the North 1, Group 1 final.
Midland Park (18-5) hosts Hawthorne in Friday’s championship game at 10:30 a.m.
“They developed that refuse to lose attitude,” Ernest said. “They were very upset, as any team would be, when they lost (last year). I could tell when we came into this season that they had a different look in their eye. I said yeah, this is going to be a special season.”
What it means
Midland Park will have a shot at its first sectional title since 1994, and the fourth in program history. The Panthers have consistently been effective on the pitch with an average of 15 wins over the last four years, but can’t seem to get over the hump in November. This group returned 10 starters and a depth of talent throughout the lineup. Despite being the smallest of 21 schools in its section, Midland Park has found a way to compete.
“We’ve been playing together since we were little,” senior Emma Lein said. “When you come from a small town like this, you know everyone. You’ve been playing with the same group of girls since you were six.”
For Saddle Brook, this marked the end of a breakthrough season. The Falcons (17-3) battled back from a losing record in 2017 to earn division and conference titles this year. Their trip to the Final Four signified the deepest state run in program history.
Meaghan Healy’s opening goal in the fifth minute allowed the Panthers to get in a groove. The senior mid struck a free kick from the edge of the box that zipped over the wall and under the crossbar. Her play set the tone for a one-sided affair with the Panthers pressuring the middle of the field and pinning Saddle Brook in its own end. Shae Minicucci and Lein grew the lead with back-to-back goals moments before intermission.
“We always say one team, one heartbeat,” senior Kendra Cirino said. “We all work together and make sure that we’re all on the same page.”
The second half wasn’t much different as Cirino, Nicole Passero and Victoria Vado all found the back of the net for the Panthers.
By the numbers
► Saddle Brook’s Alexis Georgevich picked up 17 saves in the loss. The Falcon goalie who was under duress for most of the day repeatedly made aggressive plays to keep the score within reach.
► This is Midland Park’s fourth-straight winning season and its second trip to the finals in that span.
Panther defender Alyssa Genao embraced the challenge of another tough assignment in shadowing Ashley Georgevich. She held the state’s scoring leader to one goal, and it came when the game was already out of reach. Mackenzie Cleary and senior Mairead Campbell also protected the back well for the Panthers.