Minicucci leads Saddle River Day into section final

Freshman Madison Minicucci scored twice for Saddle River Day, which reached the Non-Public North B state sectional final with a 3-1 win over Eastern Christian.

SADDLE RIVER – Coming into her freshman year, soccer was not even on the radar for Saddle River Day’s Madison Minicucci. Her focus athletically was on her two favorite sports, basketball and lacrosse. Although she played club soccer during her junior high days, she did not have any plans to play in high school.

However, going into a new school and trying to find your way both academically and socially can be tricky. So Minicucci decided that going out for the soccer team would not only help her get herself in shape for basketball season, but also allow her to adapt to her teammates off the field as well.

It turned out to be a great decision for both Minicucci and the Rebels. Her athleticism and physicality were on full display in the Rebels’ biggest game of the year. Facing a gritty Eastern Christian side, Minicucci scored the go-ahead goal late in the first half before putting the game away with a goal midway through the second half as third-seeded Saddle River Day advanced to a section final with a 3-1 victory in the Non-Public North B semifinals on Saturday afternoon in Saddle River.

“I thought it would be fun to make new friends in pre-season before school started,” said Minicucci. “I’m happy I made that decision and I’m happy we’ve gotten this far in the states.”

Over the first 25 minutes of the first half, neither team could gain significant momentum or get off quality looks at the net. That all changed in the final 15 minutes of the half that saw plenty of action up and down the pitch. Julia Pope and Brooke Braen were flying all over the field all game long creating chaos. The sophomore speedster beat a defender and cut back towards the middle of the field. She slipped a pass to Pope, who bent a shot just over the outstretched leap of Eastern Christian keeper Hannah Leegwater and watched it dip under the crossbar to get the Rebels on the scoreboard first.

Eastern Christian's Kirsten Braunius (right) celebrates her 15th goal of the season.

Eastern Christian only got off one shot on net over the first 40 minutes. It was all the Eagles needed to get on the scoreboard. In the 29th minute, striker Kirsten Braunius took advantage of a miscue in the back to pounce on a loose ball and rip a shot from a tough angle inside the far post and in to knot the score at 1. The goal, Braunius’ 15th of the year, matches her total from her freshman year in 2021.

Saddle River Day has grown their program relying on multi-sport athletes to come in and make big contributions. The Rebels got just that on a hustle goal to regain control heading into halftime. Bella Harrison gave them a spark off the bench, winning a ball in traffic just outside the box before slipping a pass through a tight window. Minicucci used her speed to split two defenders and get to the ball before drilling a shot into the lower right-hand corner with 5:19 to play in the half to put Saddle River Day back in front, 2-1. Harrison nearly added to the lead in the final minute of the half with a shot from point-blank range, Leegwater was up to the challenge and smothered it up to keep the Eagles with striking distance.

The Eagles’ best stretch came in the first ten minutes of the second half. Freshman center midfielder Caroline Pringle was making smart decisions and pushing the pace in the attacking third. Braunius nearly got her second her goal after beating a defender to a loose ball along the end line. She poked it past Saddle River Day’s freshman keeper Jillian Gomez. Rebels’ marking back Nia Carrera was at the right place at the right time as she clear the toe-poked shot off the goal line. Minutes later, Pringle had a hard shot on shot, but Gomez was there to make the diving save.

Julia Pope and Saddle River Day will play DePaul for the Non-Public North B title.

Although the Rebels’ had a lead in the second half, it was a tenuous one until Minicucci rose to the occasion once again. She sliced her way through a trio of Eagle defenders then found the back of the net again for the all-important insurance goal and a 3-1 lead with 21:59 to play. That was all the Rebels needed as Delaware-bound senior Calista Collins, who was spectacular in the back all game for the Rebels, and Gomez shut down any hopes of an Eastern Christian (8-9-2) comeback.

“I think I didn’t have my best game (in the Non-Public North B quarterfinals), and I had to redeem myself in this game,” added Minicucci. “Having so many athletes on the field helps a lot. Everyone is used to the intensity of the game. You don’t need to be a natural soccer player to make an impact, it can be anyone if you try hard enough.”

Saddle River Day (10-5-1) was going supposed to be a team that was rebuilding heading into the season. Nobody told the Rebels and that has showed with several quality wins throughout the season, highlighted by a 1-0 win over Waldwick, which just won the North 1, Group 1 sectional title. The Rebels will have their hands full in the Non-Public North B section final against this year’s Passaic County Tournament champions and one of the state’s top teams, DePaul.

With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Rebels are going to do what they do. Play together, play physical, and let the chips fall where they may. It was a recipe for success back when Saddle River Day won its first section title back in 2018, why not see if it can work again?

“State tournament games are always tough because you have to adjust to teams really in the first ten minutes and then try to settle in,” said Collins. “Going into the DePaul game, we’re an underdog. We’ve always been overlooked and we honestly didn’t think we’d make it this far. But now we’re here and we’re going to be our scrappy selves. We’ll play as hard as we possibly can and make it as difficult as possible for them to come out with a win.”