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Kearny repeat as Hudson County champions at Red Bull Arena

Boys and girls teams both pick up silverware in Harrison

Kearny’s Johan Baez celebrates after scoring a penalty kick against Union City in the Hudson County Tournament final.
Photo by John Perd

Despite both the New York Red Bulls and NJ/NY Gotham FC seasons being over, trophies were lifted at Red Bull Arena this past Friday. For a second straight year Kearny High School stood alone as champions in Harrison. Standing on the same field as the pros, the Kearny Kardinals boys and girls soccer teams each won their respective Hudson County Tournament trophies on Friday against Union City and Bayonne, respectively.

This was the fourth time this year that the Red Bulls’ home field was used for high school games. Earlier this month, Becton Regional won a regular season game over Wood-Ridge in extra time at the Arena. Kardinals boys head coach Bill Galka wasn’t shy about praising both teams after the game. But even after his team’s 3-0 win it wasn’t long before he started thinking about improvements. All while his team hoisted a trophy in front of over 3,000 screaming fans.

“We’re happy with the three (goals). Could we have scored a couple more? Probably,” Galka said. “But we certainly played well enough to win a good game against a quality opponent.”

The tournament final being at the arena didn’t come as a last minute surprise like it did last year. Kearny’s overtime win over Harrison in 2021 was initially supposed to be at Lincoln Park in Jersey City before being moved to RBA ahead of the major match. This time around and following the success of that game, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) and Hudson County made arrangements early.

So, thousands of fans crammed packed into the eastern stands separated based on school, with Kearny dominating the left side of the arena. In total, they probably made up close to two thousand spectators at their largest. While the biggest crowd of the night was for the boys team, the opening contest between Kearny and Bayonne High School was actually the more competitive match. Against the second seed, Kearny’s defense was tested for the entire game but prevailed, 2-0. Freshman defender Kaela Cicchino was a standout on a backline that settled in after a few early slipups.

That backline was led by senior Maci Covello, who throughout the game focused on keeping the Bayonne Bees at bay while trying to set up attacks. It was a constant battle against a team that had an ability to stick around in games. While the Kardinals were the favorites coming in, having won twelve straight county tournaments, Bayonne had gotten to the game with merit. Their win against West Essex in a previous round came with a tying goal in the last 90 seconds of their game.

The Kearny girls team celebrate their win at Red Bull Arena.
Photo by Michael Battista

“We know that (Bayonne is) dangerous in behind. So we want to deny them those opportunities,” Girls head coach Michael Sylvia said after the game. “At the same time, we talk about how as soon as we get the ball with a team like Bayonne, who plays really organized but narrow, we want to try and release them as soon as possible.

One of Maci’s main targets in the midfield was a familiar face. Her sister Olivia Covello, a sophomore, was one of her prime targets during the game until an injury forced her off the field in the second half.

Senior Gianna Charney opened the scoring in the 22nd minute when Paige Raefski hit a ball into the box. A mis-hit by a Kearny attacker was quickly shot by Charney, whose attempted hit off the post and into the net. Raefski earned a second assist in the second half when her feed was headed in by Maci Covello to make it 2-0.

“We know Bayonne’s gonna be tough,” Sylvia said. “We knew the emotion of the game was going to be a really big driving force for them. But we took care of business. We scored goals when we needed to score goals, we had lots of opportunities.”

In the night’s second match, the Kearny boy’s team didn’t leave much up for debate. Their seventh Hudson County trophy and second in a row, came in a dominating 3-0 win over Union City High School. Despite the win and his team’s high ranking in the state, including being number two in the Top 20, boy’s coach Bill Galka believes his team needs to stay focused.

“Always humble. We want to win but we want to be humble. We want to be respectful of every opponent that we come up against. At the same time you want to be grateful. You want to be better next time, the next game.”

Despite the scoreline, the biggest factor in the boy’s win was also defense. The back four of Hans Zoller, Max Silva, Michael Reis, and Massimo Rondon all stifled the Union City attack throughout the night. One particular break by the Eagles late in the first half saw a forward run down the left side with nearly no one in front of him. Charging in from behind, Reis cleanly took the ball away with a sliding tackle, kept possession, and immediately began to move down field to start an offensive attack.

Kearny goalkeeper Alex Cruz started the game and made nine saves for his sixth shutout of the season. Pedro Perez entered in the game’s final minutes and made one save.

“Sometimes we don’t talk enough about goalkeeping but I thought (Alex) was fantastic,” Galka said. “We were in safe hands, (he) tipped a couple of nice ones over the bar for corners. Great performance from the goalkeeper, back four, and of course the forwards.”

It was a sharp difference from the previous two meetings between the schools. While Kearny won both regular season games this year, Union City pushed hard in those. The September 12 game finished 4-3 while the Sept. 28 meeting ended 2-1.

Union City’s chance for a first county title since 2018 was dashed in the 22nd minute when Alejandro Alvarado headed in a Johan Baez free kick from the right side of the box. Five minutes later, Baez added one of his own when a foul on the left side of the box sent him to the spot. He converted his penalty kick to make it 2-0 with only 10 minutes to play in the 40 minute half. Alvarado put the finishing touches on the Kardinals’ title with a goal in the 66th minute. He and Baez were the Kardinals main attacking force for the Kardinals during the match.

Despite the result Union City looked to have somewhere around 1,000 fans themselves for the game. There were times in the match where City would break down the field, causing a cheer from the right stands, only for Kearny to counter attack and get an even louder response. For the size of the crowd and how much space was allotted, it felt more alive than the Red Bulls’ playoff game last weekend at the same arena.

Both teams now head into the state tournament later this month. The NJSIAA Public Schools tournaments, which Kearny will compete in Group 4 of, will be seeded later this week. The first games will be played on Wednesday for the girls and Thursday for the boys. Both Kearny teams are expected to be high seeds in their respective groups.