Westwood refuses to lose once again

Erin Wilson's cracking free kick in the 13th minute was all Westwood needed to come out on top of Hanover Park, 1-0, in the Group 2 semifinals on Tuesday night.

BASKING RIDGE – When Erin Wilson was among a handful of freshmen to take the field for Westwood during the 2015 season the ultimate goal was one that, while reasonable, bore little resemblance to one that might be set by one of Bergen County more traditional power programs. The Cardinals merely wanted to move up the ladder in the highly competitive Big North-Patriot Division.

But after a slew of come-from-behind wins early in the season, an impressive Bergen County Tournament run and finishing unbeaten in league play to tie with Ramsey for a league title, the Cardinals aspirirations continued to grow. Thanks to a rock solid defense and a timely shot by Erin Wilson, the Cardinals continue to reach new heights.

Wilson scored on a free kick in the 13th minute and Camryn Collova made a key save late as Westwood advanced to the Group 2 state final for the first time in school history with a 1-0 triumph over Hanover Park on Tuesday night at Ridge High School in Basking Ridge.

“This is a surreal feeling and it started way back with our comeback against Mahwah in the second game of the year,” said Westwood head coach Eric Pfiefer. “We adopted a 'Refuse To Lose' mentality and it has carried us now all the way to a state final. The key for us was physically to play our game and run through every ball. Mentally, the challenge was believing in ourselves and believing that we're good enough to win games against the better teams. We started believing after some of those crazy wins early in the season and we still have that mentality now.”

Westwood keeper Camryn Cullova came up with the key save she needed to keep Hanover Park off the board.

The match featured contrasting styles between the speed of the Hornets versus the physicality of Westwood. While possession was virtually even throughout the first half there was one major difference. The Cardinals were able to put the few shots they had on target; all while shutting down the Hornets' vaunted counterattack.

History repeated itself for the Cardinals as they used the same blueprint as they did in the 1-0 win over Sparta this past Thursday. Wilson found a way to put the ball in the net in the first half and Westwood trusted its defense to do the rest.

On a 25-yard free kick outside the top corner of the box, the Hornets made an interesting decision by having only a one-player wall with that player not exactly their tallest. That gave Wilson a virtual green light to go for goal and she did just that. Wilson's shot started out looking as if it was going to go over the crossbar and might have fooled Hanover Park goaltender Natalie Santangelo's. However, the ball dipped at the last second and gave Santangelo little time to react. By the time she got her hands up, the ball hit the bottom of the crossbar and landed behind the goal line to give Westwood a 1-0 lead 12:44 into the match.

“I just was trying to get a good shot on goal and I was actually pretty shocked that it went in,” said Wilson. “Whether we scored first or not, we feel pretty confident that we will find a way to win, but it definitely helps to score first when it comes to the states.”

Lucie Gehringer and Westwood will travel to Kean University on Saturday for the Group 2 state final against Wall.

The Cardinals had two more quality chances in the first half to pad their lead, but missed by inches of doing so on both occasions. Lucie Gehringer's shot clanged off the crossbar in the 27th minute and Santangelo came up with a diving save to knock away another chance but the Cardinals still held a one-goal lead at halftime.

In the second half, the Hornets raised their level of play and consistently kept the pressure on the Cardinals' back line with passes into space along the flanks. Each time Westwood's outside fullbacks were up to the task. Senior Nicolette Lombardi and sophomore Haley Fasano were outstanding throughout the game, but especially down the stretch when the pressure was on.

“We knew they were going to push up and try to get the tying goal, we had to be tough,” said Lombardi. “It was important to set the tone especially with the ball skipping off the turf like it did tonight. Winning 50-50 balls brings our positivity up on the field and it becomes contagious. Once we win a loose ball we want to get the next one and wear down the other team.”

Hanover Park (15-6-3) made one last push late and nearly netted the equalizer. Claire Cahill skipped a shot from the top of the box that made its way through traffic in front. Collova has not been called upon to make many saves this entire season (just 79 in 22 games, including three against Hanover Park), but she made the big one when it counted. Her diving fingertip save pushed the ball across the goalmouth before Fasano was there to poke it away from danger with 7:52 remaining. Wilson and stopper Ashley Downes also cleared out a pair of potentially dangerous balls in the defensive third late as Westwood (18-1-3) hung on for its first-ever berth in a state final.

Westwood has thrived in an underdog role all season and will have a chance to do so again when it faces Wall, which has not lost in two months and also shared the Group 3 state title with Northern Highlands last fall, for the Group 2 state title at 12:30 P.M. on Saturday at Kean University in Union.

“We're so motivated to keep this ride going and we're happy we get a chance to play for a state championship,” added Wilson. “This team has such great chemistry and we basically do everything together. When you have a bond like this team has it translates well on the field and makes the games both easier to play and also more fun to enjoy the good times. The only sad part is that we only have one last game to play together as a team. It's been an amazing experience that we'll always remember.”