Free kicks the difference as Mendham knock out Old Tappan

Hans Gallagher celebrating the game's only goal as Mendham posted a 1-0 win over NV/Old Tappan in the Group 3 state semifinals at Livingston High School.

LIVINGSTON – There were balls flying all over the park at Livingston High School. Passes played on the ground, serves over the top, physical tackles and everything else associated with high level state playoff soccer, but in the end the Group 3 state semifinal boiled down to two free kicks; one for each team.

Northern Valley/Old Tappan had the first crack at it as a foul outside the box in the middle of the field less than two minutes into the game. Colin Eifert skirted the wall and kept it low, a perfect line for the ball to nestle into bottom right-hand corner. Mendham goalkeeper Ryan Carkhuff had other ideas as he laid out and somehow found a way to push the ball off the inside of the post. The rebound rolled straight through the goal mouth and went begging until Matt Sullivan was able to clear it off the line to keep the game scoreless. Opportunity lost for Old Tappan.

“When got that foul called against us I was a little scared. I am not going to lie. They were right on the 18 and we knew they had a good kid taking the kick. I put four people in the wall, I put them toward the front post,” said Carkhuff. “I kind of knew he was going to go bottom corner to my left, that was his best angle. I dove and I got it.”

Then, in the 28th minute, a foul at the top of the box, gave Mendham its turn at an uncontested restart from a dangerous spot and the Minutemen took advantage. The original effort was a rip by Stephen Ryan that forced NV/OT keeper Matt Burstein into a sprawl to his left. Burstein made the save, but could only knock the ball offline and toward the corner where James Worth was hovering. He sent a cross from a bad angle back in front and Hans Gallagher tapped it in in style; with a cheeky back heal through traffic.

Danny Yun created some of the best chances for Old Tappan, which finished its season with a 14-4-4 record.

For all of the other effort expended in a high-speed match at Livingston High School, the outcomes of those two free kicks made the difference in a 1-0 Mendham (19-3) win that sends the Minutemen into Sunday’s Group 3 state final against Mainland in a 3 p.m. start at Kean University. Old Tappan’s season, which included a trip to the Bergen County Tournament final and a North 1, Group 3 state sectional title, came to an end with a 14-4-4 record.

“It was free kick, the ball bounced out and James Worth was good enough to pick his head up and find me. I was just in the right place at the right time,” said Gallagher, whose fancy finish was more necessity than showtime. “It was a little bit behind me and I just tried to get something on it. That was just the way it worked out.”

Old Tappan’s best chance to get even came when Danny Yun got a step ahead on the right flank, a rarity against the stout Mendham backline, and whistled one in, but Carkhuff closed down his near post and punched away the shot. The Golden Knights, usually a team that makes quick connections in the midfield and then sends in its speed, had trouble getting through, especially in the first half.

The second half started out better for the Knights as they started to win the midfield and get forward. Sam Kang let go a shot from distance in the 45th minute that looked promising until it flew the bar and Yun made a determined 65-yard run down the spine that got him into the box before his shot finished just wide of Carkhuff’s right post.

Ryan Carkhuff made 7 saves, including the one on a free kick that wound up sending Mendham into the Group 3 state final.

Among Mendham’s best chances to extend its lead came in the 49th minute and after Gallagher seemed to come out on the short end of an aerial battle for a 50/50 ball. He went down holding his neck just outside the penalty area as play continued the other way, but when the Minutemen regained possession and got into the attacking third, Gallagher got up and rejoined the play. He just missed putting away his redirect of a Ryan service.

With Mendham’s back line keeping Old Tappan from having any kind of discernable time on the ball and with Carkhuff picking off or punching out anything that came his way in the air, the Minutemen saw the game out with only few dicey moments.

For the Knights, it was a tough way to go out in what can only be categorized as a successful season.

“They scored on a rebound off a free kick. Our free kick hit the inside of the post and rolled across the goal line and we did not get on the end of it. That was the difference. I am little disappointed because we came this far and we would have like to go on a couple more days, but it wasn’t to be,” said Mark Torrie, who has now taken the Knights to the Group 3 semifinals twice in his four years as Old Tappan’s head coach. “A lot of the kids that played tonight will be back here next year, so this was a good learning experience and getting here and going further is something we hope to be more involved with going forward.”