Montclair State women's soccer
Photo Credit: Montclair State Athletics

Montclair State Women's Soccer and Stockton Play Thriller in NJAC First Round

In the first round of the New Jersey Athletic Conference tournament, the Montclair State University Red Hawks women’s soccer team faced Stockton University on their home turf at MSU Soccer Park.

The Red Hawks were favored heading into this game because the most recent US Soccer Coaches Poll ranked them No. 18, but when they faced Stockton during the regular season, they weren't easy to play against. That's because these two teams played to a scoreless draw back in September and on Saturday, the visiting Stockton Ospreys again managed to keep Montclair State off the scoreboard in the first half. In the 29th minute, Montclair State came close to scoring when fifth year forward, Kimberly Campbell dribbled in one-on-one with Stockton’s goalkeeper and took a shot that went wide of the post.

Even though the Red Hawks would have five shots-on-goal in the first half, the visitors scored first when a corner kick resulted in a loose ball that fell to Stockton freshman, Katie Ambos, who then ripped a shot that flew into the net, high and center to give the visitors the game's first lead.

Montclair State came back strong in the second half and broke through in the 67th minute. Right-back Julie Baker played a through ball into the 18-yard box for Red Hawk sophomore from Livingston, Kylie Prendergast, who rang a shot off the goalkeeper. The rebound was chested down by Aileen Cahill, who then volleyed the ball into the back of the net to tie the game 1-1.

Eight minutes later, Cahill had the ball inside Stockton's 18-yard box and was being hounded by two Stockton defenders. While falling backwards, Cahill crossed the ball into the middle of the box where Meagan O’Callahan was able to jump up to the ball and head it off the right post and in, to give the hosts their first lead of the game.

Despite the Red Hawks taking control of the game's momentum, Stockton refused to quit and all they would need was the littlest of openings to equalize. That opening came in the 88th minute, when Stockton midfielder Riley Stock won a challenge for the ball and crossed deep into the 18-yard box. Her cross deflected off a Red Hawk, near the back-post and ended up rolling into the net and Stockton tied the game at-the-death. These two Division III women’s soccer teams went to overtime, which involved two 10-minute halves.

In the 98th minute, Cahill took a hard shot that was saved by Stockton’s goalkeeper but left a rebound. Nicole Ricci raced to the ball and kicked it off the post and in to give the hosts the lead in overtime and the Red Hawks held on to advance to the NJAC Quarterfinals. That unlikely source was Ricci, a junior midfielder who appeared in all 17 Red Hawk regular season games during the 2023 regular season mainly as a sub. She also played in nine games last season but throughout her career hadn't scored a goal, until today.

In the post-game interview, Red Hawks head coach Patrick Naughter described how it felt to see an unsung player become a hero in today’s NJAC Tournament game.

“Ricci is a kid who’s always [had] uneven playing time and has never had a bad attitude in training. She’s an awesome kid, has awesome energy and the goal comes from her sprinting after a lost cause but that’s what she does all the time, and this was the one time that the ball fell to her and she cashes it in and it’s probably the biggest goal of the season.”

Ricci’s goal in overtime is the reason Montclair State advanced, but a lot of players helped them get to that point. The Red Hawks overcame a deficit right before halftime and came-from-behind with a strong second half effort. Fifth year Red Hawk midfielder Meagan O’Callahan scored the second goal of the second half for her team, and she described the mentality that it took to complete the comeback.

We knew that the game was not nearly over. We know we had a lot of work to put in, but we knew that we were not letting today be our last game and whether it was going to be two goals, three goals, four goals like we had it in us.

Emmi DeNovellis has been a fixture in Naughter's starting eleven throughout the regular season and was a factor in this game, as well. The junior described how her team was able to overcome going down a goal at the end of the first half.

It was a little frustrating going down a goal, seeing them finish off a set piece, because we work so hard at defending set-pieces, but we know that first half is only worth a quarter—it’s not worth much, so we knew we had to flush that first half. We hadn’t really faced adversity being down 1-0 so we knew we had another 45 minutes to finish our chances.

The Red Hawks women’s soccer team are advancing to the NJAC quarterfinals for the eighth year in a row, where they will face a No. 15 The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) team that defeated them 4-1 two weeks ago. Since Montclair State last won an NJAC title in 2014, their NJAC rivals have defeated them in two straight NJAC championship games (2017, 2019).

Naughter was on the sideline when his Red Hawks last played against TCNJ in the NJAC tournament in the 2019 final and he described what he and his team must do differently if they are to have a shot at beating the second seed in the NJAC tournament.

“They're very good going forward, we're very good going forward. First step is to get our legs back underneath us… a lot of kids played a ton of minutes and they're going to be really banged up. It's a quick turnaround but we know we're fortunate to still be playing so we got to make sure defensively that we’re organized, we got to make sure we get the ball to our playmakers and hopefully it’s our night. Hopefully, we can put them on the back foot, we can go at them and we can score goals.”

The NJAC Quarterfinal between the Montclair State Red Hawks and TCNJ Lions is scheduled for Oct. 31 and will be played in Ewing at 6:00 pm. The most unlikely of heroes scored the game winning goal in the first round. For the Red Hawks, this upcoming NJAC quarterfinal will be their toughest test of the season, but who knows...they might just have a trick or two up their sleeve.

Anthony Paradiso
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