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.