Thankful for the extra game, Ramapo wins playoff opener

Sophomore MJ Dungo scored just over five minutes into the second half for the only goal Ramapo needed in a 1-0 win over Nutley in the opening round of the regional state playoffs.

FRANKLIN LAKES – Ramapo had just one loss when it came time to seed the revamped state tournament where it was placed in something called the North East E, Group 3-A playoff bracket. The Green Raiders, a perennial state power, were somehow given the seventh seed, which had it happened in a “normal” year, might have raised some protest.

Not this year, however, where every game is so precious. This year being under-seeded meant that the Green Raiders got the best reward possible, a first round contest instead of a bye. Ramapo got a much-welcomed extra game.

“We got a game. The most important thing is giving these kids the opportunity play,” said Ramapo head coach Evan Baumgarten. “I was happy that we did not get a bye because it meant we got to be here tonight and the kids got the experience of playing another game.”

Ramapo, which endured one two-week COVID-related shutdown this season and, like all teams in the state, country and world, has had another hanging over its head ever since, got to host No. 10 Nutley on Saturday evening in Franklin Lakes.

With the ability to extend its season now only in its own hands and not in those of an ad hoc seeding committee, Ramapo got a goal from sophomore MJ Dungo and limited Nutley to just the rare counter attack in 80 solid minutes that finished in a 1-0 victory. The Green Raiders earned a spot in the quarterfinals where they will visit No. 2 Northern Valley/Old Tappan on Tuesday afternoon in a 4:15 p.m.  start.

Nutley got off to a decent enough start as it penetrated the Ramapo final third on a few occasions, mostly through the efforts of Charlie Contini and captain Nicholas Kirby, but they were dealt with consistently by the Ramapo backline, which kept goalkeeper Rob Achter clean pretty much all game long.

Senior Colin McKenna helped control the midfield for Ramapo, which will play NV/Old Tappan in the quarterfinals.

“We talked before the game about how it was not who we were playing, but how we played. We just had to come out and out-work the guy you were playing against and get to the ball first,” said Ramapo senior defender Ian Chesney. “We were just trying to play the best game that we have all year. That is the goal every single game and we try to only worry about the things that we can control and hopefully the outcome falls your way.”

Save for maybe the first five minutes of the game, Ramapo (8-1-1) had the overwhelming possession advantage and the bulk of quality opportunities, but still went off at halftime locked in a scoreless draw. Nutley keeper Sebastian Lembo played leading role in that as he made one brilliant save in the 13th minute. Colin McKenna, whose main contribution in the game was winning balls, holding up play and distributing from his position in the center of the midfield, turned in the box and fired on target only to see Lembo, with a full dive to his left, push the ball out and around the post.

Lembo also made a quality save five minutes into the second half as Dungo got in up the left and centered for Alim Lita, who put one on frame, but Dungo never gave up his pursuit. Lembo’s save eventually ended up over the right touchline from where Colin McKenna threw it in with pace. The ball found its way through the traffic inside the six-yard box and Dungo headed it home on the backside to tally the game’s lone goal with 34:40 showing on the second half clock.

“I played the ball the across and it turned out that we won a throw-in and Colin was able to throw it all the way into the box,” said Dungo. “It bounced over and I was able to score the header and I was happy to get that goal for the team.”

Nutley barely challenged the rest of the way and Ramapo saw out the game to advance to the quarterfinal round. This state tournament, like none that has ever been played before it, not only takes positive results on the field but negative results off it to keep teams involved. That reality is not lost in the Ramapo players.

“It’s a blessing every day that we get to be out here. You just have to take every day one and a time and be thankful every time we do get to play,” said McKenna, the senior midfielder. “It’s tough with all of the uncertainty, but all you can do is work hard and enjoy it.”