MONTGOMERY: Cougars edge Freehold Township

Niper, MHS girls advance to sectional soccer final

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   Montgomery High School’s Andrea Niper has faced plenty of great players, but the Freehold Township girls soccer team presented a unique challenge with five Division I players and a formation that bunched together a row three attacking midfielders in front of a row of two more midfielders.
   ”It was definitely a challenge being outnumbered in the middle,” said Niper, MHS’ junior midfielder. “I had confidence in Maddie (Roe) and I to contain their players. Their three players were good. They only had one forward so we got help from the back. And as soon as we scored, we went to a 3-5-2, but it was tough. It definitely challenged my endurance.”
   The top-seeded Cougars needed all their endurance to slow the unique attack and a late rally in regulation to force overtime, where Catrina Atanda’s goal from Colby Ciarrocca with three minutes left in the first overtime won the Central Jersey Group IV semifinal, 3-2, Monday.
   ”We looked at it as a really big win for us, but we haven’t won anything yet,” Niper said. “We’re keeping that in mind going into the game Thursday. Even though our record reflects that we’re a very strong team, and that win exemplifies that more, we still haven’t won anything yet.”
   The Cougars were scheduled to host 15th-seeded Marlboro, winners of three straight upsets to reach the finals, Thursday after Packet deadline. MHS knew it would get one of its toughest games of the year from fifth-seeded Freehold Township.
   ”It was pretty stressful,” said MHS head coach Jeremy Beardsley after improving to 17-1-1. “The environment was just unbelievable. They brought two busloads. It was a wonderful night to showcase two wonderful teams. They were as good a team as we’ve seen all year.
   ”They have a couple players that completely frightened us with what they can do to a game. We showed good mental toughness. They can play a physical game. We did a great job on their forward, Gabby Galanti, who’s going to Maryland on a full ride. She got through on a goal, but we did a good job of making her go over us and go wide.”
   After an early goal by Ciarrocca, Freehold responded with goals from Galanti and Madison Dunn to take a 2-1 lead that lasted until the final 15 minutes of regulation when Michelle Wiltse sent the game into overtime before Atanda’s game-winner on a gorgeous left-footed strike.
   ”The equalizer was equally amazing,” Beardsley said. “We were dangerous on corners all day. We missed a couple, but we scored off one in the first six minutes. They had a half clearance that we fought to get back. Michelle hit a rifle in the upper left corner. When you left back scores her second goal of the year, you start to think maybe this is meant to me.”
   Niper was confident in MHS once it tied Freehold late in the game. That gave them the momentum they needed.
   ”We’ve shown ourselves to be really strong in overtime,” Niper said. “In the Ridge game, we came back late in regulation and won in overtime. I knew we weren’t going to let this go with how important the game was. I was pretty confident we’d get the job done and win the game.”
   Niper never worried about the Cougars, even when they were behind. It just seemed like a matter of time before Montgomery found a second goal.
   ”I was very confident,” Niper said. “We were definitely dominating them in the half. The forwards just kept getting opportunities. They missed a few, but I knew they would pull through and finish the last one. Michelle came up big.”
   It was the Cougar defender who came up with the equalizer, as Montgomery got contributions from everyone for the win. Once they were even, the Cougars’ confidence soared.
   ”It had a lot to do with that,” Niper said. “It gave us a lot of confidence once we tied it. Once we got that goal, it showed we’re not losing in regulation. It showed we’re going to stick this out. It was a big-time goal by her.”
   Niper did her job in the midfield to take on a talented Freehold group. It was nothing unusual for the three-year starter.
   ”I’ve definitely been up against people like (Monday) night,” said Niper, who battled Villanova-bound Christina Camassa all night. “With Pingry, Emily Damstrom is just as good and probably just as big. I wasn’t looking at they have five Division I players. I just wanted to win this game. They were great players and they challenged us.”
   Gone are the days when MHS teams would get pushed around by bigger opponents. The way that Niper battled in the midfield Monday set the example for the way that the Cougars would compete all game.
   ”Andrea is our heartbeat,” Beardsley said. “She’s our engine. Although she’s only scored a handful of goals, she does the hard work. She’s the conduit that connects the back line to the forwards. They played a unique system with three attacking midfielders, two midfielders and one attacking forward. We sat Andrea on their attacking center midfielder, who’s going to Villanova. She did an unbelievable job. This team was physical. They beat us up. The referees allowed us. Andrea was the one that was giving it back to them. She defended set pieces unbelievably well.”
   It paid off in one of their biggest wins, a win that has them perched on their first sectional title since 2005.
   ”It’s nice that we’re winning,” Niper said. “We haven’t had a winning season like this since I came into the program. We’re playing so well together. We all click. We’re very unified and we play as a team. This is the first year that it’s all come together and been successful. It’s great to be a part of.
   ”I was so excited for that win (Monday). It pretty much put it in perspective what we can do on Thursday. We pretty much looked at it as, if you win this, you have a better chance of winning the sectional final. It’s one step closer to winning. It really motivated us.”