LEONIA — Any concerns that the realignment of divisions in both the Big North and the NJIC every two years would limit the development of any rivalries in both conferences was quickly dispelled Saturday in Leonia.
Harrison’s Jose Neto scored two goals in a stretch of five minutes spanning the first and second halves and the Blue Tide withheld a furious assault by the previously unbeaten Lions in the final five minutes to hold on for a 3-2 victory in the introduction between the new NJIC Liberty Division rivals in boys soccer.
“It looks like we’ve developed a rivalry after one game,” said Harrison coach Mike Rusek, who couldn’t recall playing Leonia in his 11 years at the helm. “This game had a state tournament feel to it.”
But with Leonia moving up from North 1, Group 1 to North 2, Group 2 this year and Harrison staying at Group 1, the division is as close as the teams will get to tournament play. They are scheduled to meet again Oct. 1 on Harrison’s spacious turf field.
They originally met on opening day and played eight minutes before the game was called because of thunderstorms with Leonia leading, 1-0.
Playing from the opening whistle Saturday, Harrison (5-1), ranked third in The Record boys soccer Top 25, looked like it was more prepared this time around. The Blue Tide took a 1-0 lead 15 minutes in on a goal by Justin Aponte.
But 12th-ranked Leonia (3-1) tied things up less than 10 minutes later when Fitzroy Walsh headed a long throw from Nicola Nikoloski past Harrison keeper Carlos Gutierrez.
Then with time running down toward the half, Neto took a short diagonal pass from Kevin Villanueva and raced up the middle of the field past the defense and put the ball by Leonia keeper Haun Hwang for a 2-1 lead with 1:30 left.
Coming out of the half, the two hooked up again early in the second for a 3-1 Harrison lead. All three goals seemed to be carbon copies of each other as Villanueva, who had three assists, sent Aponte and Neto in behind the defense with quick, short passes from the side.
“I saw that their right back kept pushing up, and I told Kevin to just pass it to me,” Neto said.