IHA and Bishop Eustace share a state title

Michaela Salvati's goal with less than two minutes left in regulation got Bishop Eustace even and it stayed that way as it shared the Non-Public A state title with IHA after a 1-1 draw at Kean University.

UNION – It is a scene unique to championship games and it has happened often, but the shared state title and the emotions it brings with it are still hard to explain. Some players are crying tears of joy when it is over, others on the same team might be shedding tears of agony or there are others still that have that look that screams, “What just happened here?”

Trying to put all of that into perspective was the job of IHA head coach Brandon Silva in the postgame huddle after Sunday afternoon’s Non-Public North A at Kean University.

Silva’s team, having scored one early, gave up one late in regulation then sweated out a pair of overtimes, including seeing the potential game-winning goal for Bishop Eustace waved off in the second extra session, and walked off with a 1-1 draw.

“The co-champ thing is always a funny situation with these kids. I understand the expectations they have, I understand what they want, but we did not lose. Look, one of our girls over there is crying,” said Silva. “We started off the season 0-2 and we wanted to get back on the map and we did. This is a beautiful thing. We just got to play on the biggest stage that high school girls soccer has to offer. I just said to them, ‘Let’s celebrate, let’s have a good time.’ This is beautiful. We played right down to the last day of the season and we did not lose.”

Not only did IHA (13-4-1) not lose, it nearly won in regulation. The Blue Eagles scored early, the first time it possessed the ball in the Bishop Eustace end to be precise, when Ava Wilson got on the end of a cross played in from the right corner by Isabella Souza. Laura Zaccardi nearly got her foot on the ball as it took its first bounce, but when her lunge came up just a couple of inches short, Wilson was there on the back post to knock it just 3:36 into the game.

Victoria Bertussi made some clutch saves for IHA, including two in the final 40 seconds of the second overtime.

“Isabella Souza took it down to the endline and crossed it to me. I was waiting in the box just hoping that the ball would get to me and when it did I just tapped it into the goal,” said Wilson, a junior striker. “That feeling was indescribable. Scoring early in a state championship game was unbelievable and I definitely thought we were going to win the game.”

Scoring so early was certainly a welcome development, but it also forced IHA into a delicate balance. It was way too early to sit behind the ball and try to see out the game, but pushing numbers forward too often while playing with a lead could set up Bishop Eustace for counterattacks with a numbers advantage. With Sara Beidleman up top, Bishop Eustace was dangerous anyway, and there had to be some thought given to where she was at all times.

The Eagles seemed to strike the perfect balance as they maintained their lead through the rest of the first half and well into the second. They had the first two chances of the second half with a free kick from 25 yards out in the 42nd minutes that finished high of the mark and Isabella Roselli’s rip of the second ball off a short corner kick that went wide right in the 50th.

Bishop Eustace faced further adversity shortly after when starting goal keeper Nellie Manalo-LaManna went down in a scrum in front of the Crusaders’ net. She was walked off the field after being checked for a possible concussion and did not return, which meant that senior Elizabeth O’Dee, who started the game as a defender, was pressed into service between the pipes.

Ava Wilson scored just three-and-a-half minutes into the game to give IHA the lead.

O’Dee threw on a pinny and walked back into the box without so much as goalie gloves for equipment, but got a pair thrown in from the bench and carried on. O’Dee handled a couple of long balls played her way just fine, but was never really tested over the final 45 minutes of the game as Bishop Eustace took over possession down the stretch.

IHA’s best chance to extend the lead came midway through the second half when Souza, a disruptive force with her hustle all game long, got in on a through ball from Kelly Kilduff and was in a race with Bishop Eustace defender Brianna Montinard, who was closing fast. Souza got off a shot on the dead sprint, but it missed high and wide and the action moved to the opposite end for long stretches as the Crusaders chased the equalizer.

“Our main thing was just not to give up until the final whistle, to fight hard and just keep pushing forward. We needed a goal and we had to keep fighting for it,” said Boo Schubert, who just completed her first season as Bishop Eustace’s head coach with the program’s first state title since winning the Non-Public B crown in 2008. “We could not get frustrated. When we got the chances we had to remain calm because the goal was going to come. I kept telling them that the goal was coming, it just took a little longer than we had hoped.”

There were many chances. IHA keeper Victoria Bertussi slid out to take one off the foot of Beidleman at the edge of the area and then watched as Beidleman’s follow up shot went just wide of the mark in the 66th minute. With just over eight minutes to go in regulation Brittany Pickering’s cross pinged around in the area before Beidleman got off another hard shot that also missed just wide to the left.

Sara Beidleman was a force up top all game long for Bishop Eustace, which won its first state title since 2008.

The clock had just dipped below two minutes when a defender decided to play the ball back to Bertussi, who had already committed to fielding it herself and then had to scramble back to play the ball off to the side. The initial danger was averted, but Bishop Eustace took advantage of the miscommunication, played the ball back in quickly to Erin Sullenberger, who hit one from about 35 yards out right into the sweet spot above Bertussi’s gloves and under the crossbar to make it 1-1 with just 1:52 left in regulation.

Bishop Eustace (15-5-2) had most of the chances in the first overtime; the best of them a Beidleman rip off a feed from Sammie Sorensen that forced Bertussi into making a chest-high save of the screamer in the 86th minute. Souza’s work-rate led to two IHA chances in the second overtime, the second of which, a line drive struck on the run, tested O’Dee for the first and only time in her stint in the Crusaders’ net.

Bertussi’s day was not over, however, as she needed two saves and a whistle to keep IHA even in the final 40 seconds. Beidleman dispossessed a defender who was trying to shield the ball on its way out of bounds and then turned on the endline. Beidleman drew the attention and then slipped a pass to Sullenberger, whose shot was on frame, but kicked away by Bertussi.

The trouble never subsided as Michaela Salvati got on the rebound and put the ball right back on goal only to see Bertussi scramble back into time to push the shot up and off the crossbar. It fell right back into the mixer in front of goal and was finally finished by Olivia Hansen. Bishop Eustace was in full celebration mode by the time it learned that Hansen had come from an offside position and the goal was waved off. Thirty-one seconds later, the final whistle blew and emotions of all kinds – sadness, joy and confusion – burst into the open.

“It’s bittersweet because we obviously wanted the full title. That is what we came here to get,” said Bertussi, the junior keeper. “I am honestly more upset because the season is over and this is a really good group. I love spending every day, every moment with these girls and it [stinks] that it is over. The thing I love about high school soccer is the family aspect. We are, literally, sisters. We see each other in school, we spend three hours with each other after school, we get pumped up in our team room together and I am going to miss that.”