Pascack Valley handles the pressure of Lakeland's upset bid

Allie Polyniak's goal in the 33rd minute got Pascack Valley even and the top-seeded Panthers went on to a 3-1 win over Lakeland in the North 1, Group 2 state sectional quarterfinals.

HILLSDALE – The way to spring a playoff upset is to get in front early and let the favorite start to feel the pressure. On the first crisp day that made it feel like state tournament soccer, Lakeland turned up the heat early against top-seeded Pascack Valley in the quarterfinals of the North 1, Group 2 sectional bracket.

Pascack Valley was controlling possession through the first 20 minutes, but Lakeland took advantage of one of its first offensive opportunities, a free kick from near midfield stood over by Natalie Centurione. Her restart right down the middle of field led sophomore Adelyn Smith into wide open space and a 1-v-1 situation with PV keeper Gabby Velecela. Smith tapped Lakeland’s first shot on goal into the net and gave the ninth-seeded Lancers the lead in Hillsdale.

Even though the Panthers had plenty of the ball, the pressure could have ramped up with each passing minute.

“Our theme all year has been resilience. It’s not the first time that we have gone down and we have battled back. It’s something that we talk about,” said Pascack Valley head coach Leah Jerome. “I knew that goal would fire us up. I knew we were getting opportunities. We just needed to capitalize and eventually we did.”

Pascack Valley eventually got its timing down against the high line played by Lakeland’s flat back four defensive posture and started turning offsides calls into scoring chances. The one that mattered in the first half came off a trap-beating through ball played by Amanda Polyniak in to Ella Saxon, who found herself in a breakaway situation against Lakeland keeper Jordyn Kolstein, who managed to make the first save. Allie Polyniak was there to pound home the rebound to tie the game in the 33rd minute.

Sophomore Adelyn Smith scored in the 21st minute to give 9th-seeded Lakeland the early lead.

The second half was all Pascack Valley as it got two goals in the first 17 minutes of the second half to pull away for a 3-1 victory that send the Panthers into the state sectional semifinals where it will play defending champion Old Tappan, the No. 5 seed which advanced with a 3-1 win of its own on the road at No. 4 Vernon.

Senior Tara Stewart had the game-winner, a looping shot off and Amanda Polyniak feed that snuck under the crossbar just 4:58 after the intermission.

“Getting that goal before the half really settled us down and we really came out strong in the second half. We made sure our transitions were sharper, that we weren’t on our heels and we were ready to act not react,” said Stewart, the PV captain. “We got caught offside a lot in the beginning and that was a little frustrating. That was their game, they did a good job defensively and they all knew when to step. Once we figured it out we were able to hold our runs or, if one player was offsides, we let the next person that was on make that run for the ball to make sure we were onsides.”

Pascack Valley is 16-2-1 on the season and had been generating myriad offensive chances. The Panthers won their first round game against Becton, 2-0, but that was with goalkeeper Madison Kirk making 20 saves for the 16th-seeded Wildcats. Kolstein (7 saves) was not quite as busy, but she was often challenged and did not allow a soft one against the relentless PV attack. The final goal of the game was another quality combination between Celina Bussanich and Saxon, who knocked home the cross to make it a two-goal game with just over 23 minutes left in regulation.

Ella Saxon had a goal and an assist for Pascack Valley, which will host Old Tappan in the semifinals on Thursday.

It was a physical match all the way through with multiple yellow cards given and Pascack Valley likely lost the services of Amanda Polyniak, the senior who went down with what looked like a significant ankle injury after a tackle from behind in the 65th minute. If it is an extended absence, Polyniak will be missed against Old Tappan, a team the Panthers swept in the regular season (4-2 and 2-1) on the way to the Big North National Division championship.

Pascack Valley, which is 7-0-1 in its last eight games, has not lost since the quarterfinals of the Bergen County Tournament against eventual champion Immaculate Heart Academy, while Old Tappan has scored 12 goals in its last four games and six in its two playoff wins.

“I think it speaks highly of the league when you see the Big North National so deep in the state tournament. Good for Old Tappan and I am sure the girls will be fired up. It’s a long-standing rivalry,” said Jerome. “They are from just down the road, we are happy to host and we are ready for the challenge.”