Saddle River Day wins first ever section title

Livia Davidson made two saves in the penalty kick shootout and converted the game-winning PK as Saddle River Day won its first ever state sectional championship with a 1-1 (3-1 PKs) victory over Montclair Kimberley Academy in the Non-Public North B final on Thursday..

SADDLE RIVER – When Livia Davidson decided she wanted to become a goalie her dream was to have a championship game on her shoulders and come through in a penalty-kick shootout. When PJ Petrow took over as the Saddle River Day head coach his goal was merely to lead his squad to respectability and hopefully contend for a championship at some point during his tenure.

Neither seemed realistic heading into this season, but the Rebels showed the kind of fight that champions are made of. As fate would have it, those two worlds collided when the Rebels squared off against Montclair Kimberley Academy for the Non-Public North B section title.

After a goal late in regulation by Jessica Yee tied the score and the teams remained even through two overtime periods, it was Davidson who made her dream a reality in the penalty-kick shootout. She made two huge saves, then stepped up and converted the clinching penalty-kick as second-seeded Saddle River Day won its first Non-Public North B crown in program history with a thrilling 1-1 (3-1 PKs) triumph over fourth-seeded MKA on Thursday afternoon at the Saddle River Day School.

“I can't even believe that we're here and that this is really happening,” said Davidson. “Our team never gives up and never stops playing hard, that showed with how we played today.”

Playing on their own field with the home crowd loudly cheering them on, the Rebels were flying right off the opening whistle, nearly scoring the first time they possessed the ball. Sophia McMahon sent a ball through that Leanna Tsahalis ran onto before rocketing a shot off the post just 48 seconds in. MKA struggled early in adjusting to playing on a slick grass field, but once they got their legs under them the Cougars started to control play in the midfield, earning a pair of quality scoring chances less than two minutes apart. Davidson was up to the task with a diving save and punching away a dangerous ball in traffic.

Marisa Snee scored the goal that gave MKA the lead midway through the second half.

The Cougars continued to move forward late in the half but the Rebels marked well throughout. Katherine Meeks and Mia Walsh shut down space on the outside with Calista Collins and Ella Adamek cleaning up any balls through the middle of the field.

The game was scoreless at the half but the Cougars kept putting the pressure on Davidson and the Rebels' back line. It looked like Saddle River Day might get a break when Tsahalis made a nice diagonal run to receive a through ball from Emma Simmel. She went in alone on goal but was turned away on the breakaway by Cougars' keeper Arianna Jobst. Just seconds later, things went from bad to worse for the Rebels.

On the ensuing counterattack, a high-bouncing cross was misplayed and Marisa Snee was able to get to it before the Rebels could recover. The sophomore striker volleyed a shot over the leaping Davidson and into the net to put MKA ahead, 1-0, just past the midway point of the second half.

The Rebels mounted little offense in the second half but seemed to catch a huge break when Yee's corner kick resulted in a hand ball in the box. Yee placed a shot towards the right post but Jobst guessed right and saved the shot to preserve the lead.

Playing on a wet, grass field was an advantage for the Rebels, who are used to and it served them well at the most important time of the season. Simmel sent a ball into the box from 40 yards out. The ball took a high hop over a charging Jobst. Yee never gave up on the play and got her redemption by knocking home the loose ball with 2:30 to play, knotting the score at 1.

Jessica Yee scored with 2:30 left in regulation to keep Saddle River Day's season alive before the Rebels won in PKs.

“I was pretty down after missing the penalty kick, but I had to keep going and we had to keep attacking,” said Yee. “We have worked so hard and have so many dedicated girls who gave everything to this team. There wasn't a lot of time left so I had to crash the net on anything that was close. When I saw it going over the goalie's head I just had to get in position and be ready.”

Saddle River Day was on a high after the tying goal and it grew 24 seconds later when Snee, MKA's leading scorer, was given a second yellow card and was disqualified for both of the overtime periods and the eventual PK shootout.

Being down a player did not seem to matter much as the Cougars had the better of play in both overtimes. The Rebels remained solid in the back though and kept their shape as the teams needed the penalty-kick shootout to decide a champion.

It was right where Davidson wanted to be. Her success came in her simplistic approach to each opposing kicker.

Davidson set the tone by using a two-handed punch to save the Cougars' first attempt. Jobst answered with a save and then Stella Marshall scored to put MKA ahead in the shootout, 1-0. Tsahalis, who was the Rebels' best offensive threat all game, ripped a shot into the lower right-hand corner to tie it. After a miss by MKA, Walsh showed poise well beyond her years. The freshman blasted a shot into the upper left-hand corner to give Saddle River Day the lead.

The energy on and around the field was electric throughout the game and especially so during the shootout. Things got even more intense when MKA found the upper left-hand corner on its fourth shot to seemingly tie the score. But the shooter did not wait for the whistle and was forced to re-kick. This gave Davidson an extra look and she made the most of it when a leaping save.

The junior keeper then had an even more interesting predicament seconds later. Having never taken a penalty kick nor having scored a goal in a varsity game, the sophomore placed the ball down at the penalty spot and got ready to take the biggest penalty kick of both her life and the history of the Saddle River Day girls' soccer program. She struck it perfectly with pace just under the crossbar as her teammates came running to mob her from one side of the field and the rest of the student body came from the other side as the Rebels collectively celebrated a championship that seemed like an improbable pipe dream just two months prior.

“My number one objective was to do the best I could for this team,” added Davidson. “I was so focused in PK's that I looked at everything. Where their plant foot was positioned, how their hips turned, where they looked right before they took the shot. It all led to guessing the right way and making a couple of saves. So when I had to shoot I felt like the pressure was off and I just went for it.”

Davidson finished with 11 saves for Saddle River Day (14-4-1). Yee's goal was her team-leading and school record 19th of the season.

The Rebels advance to the Non-Public B state final on Sunday at Kean University in Union. They will take on an extremely talented side in Non-Public South B champ Rutgers Prep. Playing with house money at this stage, Petrow is an awe of how this year's team and the Saddle River Day girls' soccer program as a whole has seen success so quickly.

“I truly can't believe we're in a state final, but I can't think of a more deserving group to get there,” said Petrow. “To go from where this program was and where this team was when the season started until now is incredible. We found a way against Gill St. Bernard's and we found a way against MKA when we were not necessarily the better team. But with sheer grit and determination we were able to pull out the win. No matter what we're section champs and we're going to give the same great effort in the state final that we've given all season.”