An overtime, game winning goal at Red Bull Arena is the stuff dreams are made of for many young athletes in Hudson County. But Brandon Gjekaj and Martin Lipinkski, two seniors at Henry P. Becton Regional High School, it’s a bit more literal. The two rode home together after a training session on Sunday where Lipinkski admitted to his teammate that he’d dreamed the center-midfielder was going to score the game winner in their Monday night clash against Wood-Ridge High School in Harrison.
At the time, Gjekaj just brushed him off. But after his shot sailed into the net three minutes into the first half of extra time it was Lipinkski running up and screaming “I told you so”.
Sandwiched between Decision Day and the New York Red Bulls’ first MLS Cup Playoffs match was a different type of soccer match at Red Bull Arena. In front of 500 fans, the Becton Regional Wildcats downed the Wood-Ridge Blue Devils, 2-1, in extra time. The regular season match in the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference (NJIC) Meadowlands Division cements Becton (7-5) at the top of the group with the playoff cutoff nearing.
It’s the third time in 2022 that the arena has hosted high school games. Both boys and girls have had a chance to play with Lyndhurst and North Arlington girls (Sept. 20), and the Westfield and Scotch Plains-Fanwood boys (Sept. 22) both having matches. Both the boys and girls finals of the Hudson County tournament will conclude at the arena later this month much like last year (where Kearny defeated hometown Harrison for the trophy, also in extra time.)
While on paper the game was just a regular season contest between two semi-rival programs, the stage at Red Bull Arena provided just enough spotlight for a star-making performance.
That light fell on Gjekaj who scored both of his team’s goals on Monday night. After scoring early in the second half to tie the game, his golazo from just outside the penalty area sent half of the crowd in Harrison into a frenzy.
Brandon Gjekaj calls game!— Sean Farrell (@seanfarrell92) October 11, 2022
Final: Becton 2, Wood-Ridge 1 in overtime in the Route 17 Derby at Red Bull Arena. pic.twitter.com/aSpGMvIxke
“It’s indescribable. It was like out of a dream,” Gjekaj said after the game. “It was the greatest experience of my life.”
The stunning goal followed an 80 minute match (remember high school soccer is two 40 minute halves) where Becton played catch-up despite being the bigger team. Knowing that RBA’s field was much larger than the high school pitches his team was used to, Becton head coach Mike Furino elected to come out in a 4-4-2 formation hoping to cover more ground.
“Me playing as a center mid, personally today, was by far the hardest experience of my entire life simply because of the width and length of the field,” Gjekaj admitted afterwards. “It was humongous, lots of space to cover, but I couldn’t have done that by myself.”
While his team focused on playing the long ball, that gave Woodbridge multiple chances to counter with speed in open space.
Juniors Brian Harasek and Salvatore Catanzaro were constant threats against Becton’s backline. The latter got the first shot of the game only a minute into the match while the former worked around the Wildcats’ box to take long ranged attempts that usually fell off target.
On the other side Becton had the size advantage over Wood-Ridge but wasn’t able to fully capitalize on it early on. Three separate times the team was inches away from scoring the opening goal in the first half. Nine minutes in, a Becton forward had the Wood-Ridge keeper out of the net but couldn’t adjust himself for a shot before multiple defenders swarmed him. Then with just over 15 minutes to play, Becton’s #11 had a near open lane to shoot on net before a quick defensive tackle blocked the shot before it could even be attempted.
Coach Furino entered halftime with the two teams deadlocked. Throughout the half, the coach wasn’t afraid to use substitutes constantly and he wanted players to spread out that stamina for the entire game, no matter how long it went.
“We talked about (how) sometimes you don’t want to fight fire with fire,” the coach said about his halftime talk with his team. “Sometimes you don’t want too much energy because you lose focus. So I told everybody ‘Listen, play our games, settle down, and it’ll come.’ Sure enough they followed through.”
That didn’t come immediately though as the second half started off with Wood-Ridge finding the breakthrough. Six minutes in, Harasek launched a free kick into the Becton box that was initially covered by the keeper. However, he bobbled it and Blue Devils’ junior Marcello Avila jumped to tap in the ball near the left post to make it 1-0.
Seeing what was happening, Furino altered the formation and his substitution tactics almost immediately. Three players at a time started coming in off the bench in a single sub window while the new formation included three forwards and one less defender hoping to put pressure on the Blue Devils. It worked for the rest of the match. The team not only held control but didn’t allow the other team to work any sort of fast breaks. By the time the tying goal came, the visitors led shots on goal (13-to-4).
Just over twenty minutes in, a handball in the Wood-Ridge box gave the visitors a penalty kick. Immediately, every Becton player on the field looked towards Gjekaj to take it, who didn’t hesitate to accept. His initial shot was low and to the right, blocked out by the keeper, but the senior jumped on the rebound to slot in the tying goal on the right side.
“I wish I scored it in the first time but I was there to tap it in,” he laughed about after the game, a huge smile as his teammates laughed behind him. “That just gave everyone so much more energy and it just gave everyone that boost of confidence.”
The confidence carried over into extra time/overtime with two ten minute halves on the table. However, much like the golden age of Major League Soccer, the golden goal was in play if anyone was able to find the back of the net. So three minutes in, when his teammate Sal Fonseca sent him a pass near the top of the box, the floating shot into the top right corner was all it took.
Gjekaj ran towards the sideline and the crowd of cheering fans, looking for father and girlfriend in the sea of smiling faces as his teammates celebrated around him. One minute he was on their shoulders being carried off the field and another he was getting doused with a bucket of icy water. Playing on a professional soccer field, using the same locker room and facility as the local pros, and scoring the game winner was all too much for the defender.
“I was like dude there’s no way… The most unreal experience of my entire life.”
Unfortunately he and his teammates will only have Tuesday to celebrate in school before their next match. They’ll face Bergen Charter at Johnson Park in Hackensack later today. Wood-Bridge will try to rebound against their biggest rival, Hasbrouck Heights, at home on Wednesday.