Glory Days: 2018 Morris Knolls High School Boys Soccer

Photo courtesy of Mike Mugavero

In 2018, the Morris Knolls Golden Eagles boy’s soccer team began their season with a 0 – 4 record. And, when they entered the North 1 Group IV state tournament, they were named the 14th seed.

The club went on to defeat soccer powerhouses Ridgewood, North Bergen, Kearny, and Montclair – all in that order and all on the road – to claim their first sectional title in 50 years.

Head coach Mike Mugavero was a 1985 Morris Knolls graduate and former Golden Eagles soccer player. “It was a once in a lifetime thing,” he says of 2018. “It should be made into a movie, how the season evolved. It was crazy some of the things that occurred during that season.”

“Before the state tournament, we played Morris Hills in the last game of the regular season,” recalls assistant coach, Kyle DiBella. “It was a couple nights before the state tournament began. There was a huge crowd, it was a rivalry game, and we actually lost that game. It was really disheartening, and going into the tournament, I definitely did not feel optimistic.”

“But to this day, with the way things turned out, it was by far my best coaching experience.”

The year before, Morris Knolls had won a conference title, the first time they’d won a title of any kind since the 1980’s, when Mugavero had played on three Morris County Tournament winners. The goal then in 2018 was to improve and go further and get into the state tournament, which the Golden Eagles did.

 #3 seed Ridgewood was the first victim, and the follow up victory against North Bergen made Mugavero the Morris Knolls all-time winningest coach. Two-time player of the year and All-American, Tommy Scalici, who scored 30 goals that season and 84 for his career, says, “After the first game we won versus Ridgewood – which in my opinion was the hardest team we played in that run – after we won that game, we looked at each other and we were like, ‘We can win this thing.’”

Next up was #2 Kearny, and junior Riley Van Orden scored a big goal from 50 yards away when Kearny’s goalie lost the ball in the fog and mist, giving Morris Knolls a 1 – 0 edge. “We told him to just shoot the ball on goal, and he shoots it on goal, and it goes over the goalie in the upper corner. It was unbelievable,” Mugavero says.

There would be drama, however, when a Kardinal player found a seam in the Golden Eagle defense as time was running down. Left defensive back Tom Fitz describes the scene. “The backline gets beat, and the kid is one-on-one with our goalie, Stevie Genung, who was a senior at the time and is still one of my best friends to this day. And Stevie fouled the kid, and they had a free kick with five minutes left. We’re all looking around at each other like, “This is it. They score this, and they’re going to have the momentum they need.’” Of course, Stevie saves it – one of the best penalty kick goalies I think I’ve ever seen.”

The huge win set up a battle with the #1 ranked and undefeated Montclair Mounties. “Going into the game, I had nerves like nothing,” Fitz recalls of his feeling calm. That soon changed. “I have never been nervous for a game until I actually got off the bus and started walking around. I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is probably the biggest game of my life!”

Mugavero describes the back-and-forth tussle. “They score, and they’re definitely better than us, without a doubt. Then we score (for the tie), and then we go up on them. Tommy (Scalici) gets a breakaway and gets one of the best scores I’ve seen.”

In the hotly contested Montclair matchup, where Genung allowed his first goal of the tournament, he then allowed a tying goal. “It was a bad goal. I was very disappointed. I wasn’t a fan how I played against Montclair, so I’m glad we came away with the win.” He would be rescued by a Scalici penalty kick in double overtime. “That was awesome,” Genung says. “I was praying that he would make it.”

“The boys were always saying it, ‘Let’s get this bread. Let’s get this bread.’ It was a viral thing,” Mugavero remembers. “So, I brought a loaf of Italian bread to the game. I kept it in my backpack.” Prior to the overtime, he took out the loaf, showed it to the team, and said, “This is what we came for. ‘Let’s get this bread.’ Of course, they got all fired up.”

In the second overtime, Scalici was taken down in the penalty box area and was awarded a penalty kick. As his coaches and teammates – especially Genung, who was seated on the goal line at the other end of the field – watched, their reliable captain converted, and the Golden Eagles were sectional title winners for the first time in 50 years. 

In the ensuing bedlam, Mugavero looked around for the trophy, but it was locked inside Montclair High School. His team would eventually get it sometime later, but on that day at Woodman Field in Montclair, he thought of something more appropriate. “So, I take the bread out of my bag, and that becomes our trophy. We take a photo with a loaf of Italian bread, and that picture makes the plaque on the wall in our building. It was fantastic.”

Morris Knolls would go on to beat Elizabeth, 3 – 0, to claim the North I Group IV state championship, but would fall to Washington Township in the Group IV final at Kean University, 2 – 0.

Scalici, now a junior for the Saint John’s Red Storm, would go back in time if he could. “I still talk to the guys. I played the highest level, club and now college, but nothing emulates and compares to that state run we had my senior year”

 

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