Despite Loss, Johnson Girls Proud of Historic Playoff Run
The soccer team's determination to win for Eryka Underwood brought the town together for inspiring run.
The Records: The Johnson Lady Crusaders (14-7-1) took on the Mahwah Thunderbirds (21-2-1) at 2:30 p.m. at the College of New Jersey in Ewing in the NJSIAA Group 2 Championship. Facing Mahwah's stellar record, Johnson came into the game as the underdog team. "We've heard that Mahwah's a solid team defensively," said Coach Velasco at Friday's practice. "We knew we had to be sharp all over the field, play good soccer, and play with a lot of intensity.
The Background: This is the first Johnson girl's soccer team to ever get to the state finals. The deep playoff run capped a tumultuous season for the Lady Crusaders, who earlier in the year lost several starters to injuries before they had to cope with the backyard firepit accident that left key player Eryka Underwood seriously burned and beginning a long recovery process.
After Underwood's accident, the team began a march through the county and state playoffs with steely resolve. At practice on Friday, when asked if they ever expected to go this far in the States, the girls answered with a unanimous "No." So what happened?
"We all have agreed we wouldn't be here without Eryka," said teammate Rachel Syko, who was sidelined after a concussion earlier this season. "The team wouldn't have the drive to play as well as we do. We know she's suffering and has to fight, and we want to fight with her as a team. "
At this game and all games since the accident, Underwood's #19 could be seen everywhere — painted on player's faces, written on banners and printed on t-shirts. Her parents, Andy and Lynda, have been with the team every step of the way, cheering on the girls. It seemed as though most of Clark did, too, with the Johnson fans outnumbering Mahwah fans in the stands, even on a brisk November Saturday an hour's drive from GSP exit 135.
"They're playing differently," said Johnson coach Javier Velasco at Friday's practice. "Now they're sacrificing all they've got for every 50/50 ball, every tackle, every ball in the air. They're going for it."
Assistant coach Tim Morris agreed. "When Eryka is on the field, she's strong, she has a presence," says Morris. "That was a huge piece we were missing when she went off, even before her accident. I think that's what contributed to them being more physical–we've been motivating them by telling them to 'Play like Eryka.'"
The Final Score: 3-1, Mahwah. Johnson had a slow start in the first half, with Mahwah dominating possession and peppering goalie Jamie Cheeka with several shots on goal. Ten minutes into the game, Mahwah scored first with a goal from Alexa Freguletti. Just before halftime, Alex Truglio escaped on a breakaway and beat Cheeka, giving Mahwah a 2-0 lead just before the break.
But the Lady Crusaders came back from their halftime huddle with renewed determination, confidence and spirit. Just seconds in, a kick from senior Kristy Pflug led to a Mahwah defender heading the ball over her own goalie's head and into the net, cutting the deficit in half.
The Johnson squad responded, putting pressure on their opponents, making quicker decisions and sharper passes to keep the ball on Mahwah's half of the field in the hard-fought game. The intensity of play, which drew loud cries from Johnson fans in the first half after injuries to Cat Hanley and Sarah Arteaga, grew even more physically challenging. Mahwah's Freguletti received a yellow card for pushing. The teams appeared worn down by the intensity, with neither capitalizing on many opportunities around the net. With 3:30 left on the clock, Mahwah's Truglio finally knocked one through, scoring the Thunderbirds' final goal, effectively ending any hope for a Johnson comeback. "We didn't keep the ball," said Coach Velasco after the game. "Possession, I think that's what killed us today."
The Heroes: Johnson's senior starters showed their maturity and experience, keeping the game close against serious competitors. Departing seniors on the roster include Sarah Arteaga, Sofia Arteaga, Stefani Avena, Cat Hanley, Julianne Juzefyk, Kelly Loalbo, Nicole Marzano, Kristy Pflug, Kelsey Pinkham, Rachel Syko and Cathryn Vaccaro.
The Quote: "We knew that they were really good," said Hanley. "We could see their records online where they had beaten teams 12-0, 9-0. They have no mercy. We tried our best to play for Eryka again. At halftime Mrs. Underwood came over to me and said, 'No matter what the score is, just know how proud we are of you guys. She's proud of you.'"
Before the game, Andy Underwood echoed the sentiment. "Win, lose or draw, Eryka knows they have gone above and beyond," he said. "I just hope the girls are also proud of themselves and what they've done. They made State finals."
The Season: This year's team started strong and healthy, before injuries came and with them, losses to Scotch Plains and Westfield. But the team picked it up and just kept winning, for Eryka and other injured teammates, but for themselves too. After Underwood's accident, the team was clearly playing inspired soccer with her on their minds—and they made all Johnson fans happy.
"We're real proud of the season," said Johnson athletic director Gus Kalikas. "They came together in some extremely tough circumstances. The school's proud of them, the community's proud of them, and they should be proud of themselves."
Assistant Coach Tim Morris is quick to note Johnson's milestones this season. "Obviously they're frustrated with having lost this game," said Morris. "But they've got to remember all the good things. We won our section for the first time in a while. We're one of the top two Group 2 schools in the state. To get here, to get to this stage… They have to remember what got us here."
"Teams dream to be here," echoed Coach Velasco. "Coaches and players play for four years and they never make it this far. They're here. They made history."