Lein's goal give Midland Park control of league title race

Kendra Cirino and the Midland Park defense held their ground in a 2-1 win over Emerson that gave the Panthers control of the NJIC-Patriot Divison title race.

MIDLAND PARK – After having its 2017 season end at the hands of rival Emerson, Midland Park had the Cavos circled on the calendar from the first day of the preseason. The anticipation heightened throughout the first month as both teams ripped through league play coming into their first showdown of the season. With the score tied in the second half, the Midland Park found an extra gear and used it to keep its winning ways intact.

Emma Lein scored the game-winner midway through the second half and the Panthers did not allow another shot from that point on. The end result was a 2-1 win that was Midland Park’s eighth straight and it grabbed sole possession of first place in the NJIC-Patriot Division on Wednesday at Midland Park High School.

“We knew this was a huge game and we had to dig deep,” said Midland Park’s versatile senior Kendra Cirino. “We had to put everything on the line and go all out for every 50-50 ball.”

Emerson struggled to get its footing early on the soggy grass field as the Panthers used their home pitch to their advantage throughout the first half. The Panthers got the lone goal of the first half when Lein’ skipped a low corner kick that skipped off the grass, hit a defender and bounced in for an own goal to give Midland Park a 1-0 halftime lead.

The Cavos only had one corner kick and one shot on goal in the first half. Facing a deficit to start the second, they showed a sense of urgency in the first few minutes earning four consecutive corner kicks before finally cashing in. After a failed clearing attempt, Tori Hopkins drilled a shot through traffic and into the lower left-hand corner in the 47th minute to tie the score at 1.

Emerson's Tori Hopkins drilled a shot through traffic and into the lower left in the 47th minute to tie the score at 1.

After being put on their heels for the first 10 minutes of the second half, the Panthers answered back by controlling the defensive third of the field and playing the ball forward instead of kicking and running. Emerson goalie Gianna Mancino made a pair of one-hand stab saves in succession but the Panthers’ attack kept coming in waves.

In the 70th minute, Sarah Kennedy lofted a cross from the left flank and Shae Minicucci’s one-touch volley landed right on the foot of an open Lein inside the top of the box. She took one dribble in then laced a left-footed shot from the penalty spot into the lower right-hand corner to put Midland Park in front, 2-1.

“As a striker you’re always supposed to go for the corner and I was lucky to hit one,” said Lein. “I didn’t have much time to look up and pick a spot, so I just planted and hoped.”

The Cavos pushed numbers forward for the remainder of the game to try and net the tying goal. The Panthers’ bent several times but never broke. Cirino and sweeper Mackenzie Cleary came up big in the second half by dominating their third of the field as Midland Park held on for the win.

“When we got the lead back we knew it was up to us to keep them away from our net,” added Cirino. “After we scored in the second half packed it in a bit and made it tough for them to make passes through us.”

Shae Minicucci and Midland Park will get a shot at top-seeded Northern Highlands in the Bergen County Tournament on Sunday.

Lein’s goal was her team-leading 12th of the year for Midland Park (9-1). Michelle Mecca finished with five saves. Four of the Panthers’ last six wins have come by one goal. Mancino had nine saves for Emerson (6-4).

Midland Park will now prepare for, by far, its toughest opponent of the season in the Bergen County Tournament’s Round of 16. The Panthers will take on No. 1 seed Northern Highlands, which will play angry coming off of its first loss of the season (3-2 to Ramapo in overtime) on Tuesday. However, the Panthers are coming into the game knowing that only positives can come from being a Group 1 team playing one of the best teams in the country.

“It’s an honor to play against such a well-respected team with great players and a great coach,” said Lein. “It’s a great opportunity for us and it’s going to be exciting to be on the same field as them. We’re going to play as hard as we can and see what happens.”