Obstacles overcome: Judge reaches title game

Fath­er Judge seni­or soc­cer play­er Von­tez Hil­liard’s goal against St. Joseph’s Prep in the semi­finals lif­ted the Cru­saders to the Cath­ol­ic League cham­pi­on­ship game. AL­BERT SCHELL / FOR THE TIMES


Two months ago, noth­ing was go­ing right for the Fath­er Judge boys’ soc­cer team.

Now, the Cru­saders are just one win away from an im­prob­able Cath­ol­ic League cham­pi­on­ship.

On Sat­urday, seni­or for­ward Von­tez Hil­liard’s in­ten­ded cross from the far side­line curled in­side the near post with 3:32 re­main­ing in the first half, notch­ing the only goal Judge needed in their 1-0 semi­finals win over St. Joseph’s Prep. With the vic­tory, Judge moves on to play top-seeded La Salle in Wed­nes­day night’s cham­pi­on­ship game (the Ex­plorers knocked off Arch­bish­op Ry­an in pen­alty kicks in the oth­er semi­final game).

“Our motto is, ‘We will not fail,’ just keep fight­ing no mat­ter what,” said Hil­liard, whose twin broth­er, Vontae, is Judge’s sweep­er. “We didn’t give up on each oth­er. I’m proud of these guys.”

For a time, it didn’t seem pos­sible that Judge would end up in this po­s­i­tion, not after some of the obstacles the team has been forced to over­come. First, the Cru­saders lost their best de­fens­ive play­er, cap­tain Steve Smeck, to a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury. Then, not more than a week later, the team’s oth­er cap­tain and best of­fens­ive play­er, Justin Hiltwine, was lost for the sea­son with an identic­al in­jury. Sud­denly, a team with title as­pir­a­tions was without two of its top play­ers, who also happened to be two of the most tal­en­ted soc­cer play­ers in a league full of them.

“We were dream­ing of this last year with Hilt and Smeck,” Hil­liard said. “But you just can’t stop our vis­ion. We just told ourselves to keep mov­ing. Des­pite the in­jur­ies, we knew we could get here.”

Ad­ded ju­ni­or goal­keep­er Danny Sulp­iz­io: “Every­one had their heads down at first and thought it was over. But it picked us up. This year has been a fun one, day in and day out.”

After a few peaks and val­leys, the Cru­saders pulled to­geth­er a fine 13-6-1 over­all sea­son, in­clud­ing a 9-2-1 mark in the rugged Cath­ol­ic League, which tied them for the second-best re­cord.

In last Tues­day night’s quarterfi­nals match against Arch­bish­op Wood, Judge found them­selves fa­cing ad­versity once again. Down 1-0 with six minutes left in their sea­son, Mo­hamed Conde, one of Judge’s top scorers, was is­sued a red card by the of­fi­cials, dis­qual­i­fy­ing him for the rest of the game (and the next one against the Prep), for­cing the Cru­saders to play down a man. For this Judge team it was noth­ing new, and three minutes later, de­fend­er Kev­in Lock­hart tied it on a free kick. Later, in double over­time, Judge’s Joey Hansen won it.

Just an­oth­er day at the of­fice for the nev­er-say-die Cru­saders.

“Coach­ing a group of kids like this has been a treat,” said head coach John Dun­lop. “Any­time a new situ­ation arises, they just find a way. They’re good kids, and I can’t ex­press how proud of them I am over what they’ve ac­com­plished. They de­serve it.”

Up next is a re­match with La Salle, last year’s cham­pi­ons. The Ex­plorers knocked off Judge, 2-1, in over­time on Sept. 21. A lot has happened since, but the most jar­ring thing La Salle will have to deal with is knock­ing off a team that has since jelled tre­mend­ously as play­ers have ad­jus­ted to new roles in the ab­sence of Smeck and Hiltwine.

It won’t be easy for Judge, but then again for this team, noth­ing ever is. And after yet an­oth­er win with their backs to the wall, all the Cru­saders could do af­ter­ward is pre­pare for the next one.

“Bring on La Salle,” Sulp­iz­io said.

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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