En route to making history, the Robbinsville High boys soccer team showed an incredible ability to dig deep and produce in the most pressurized of situations.
Much of it had to do with quality players and coaching, but there was also the intangible of rigatoni and an Italian shorti.
“It was the togetherness of the team,” senior defender Sean Smith said. “(Senior defender) Nolan O’Grady’s dad said it best when discussing our team’s chemistry, saying ‘I might have to take a loan out after all the pasta parties and WaWa visits this year.’
“These group hangouts definitely connected us on a more personal scale. Because we were close outside of soccer, inside of soccer we wanted to win games and fight for each other. Our scrappy play comes from our togetherness and the fact that no one on the team had an ego or was worrying about stats. Everyone stepped up when they had to.”
The result was an 18-4-1 record and the NJSIAA Group III state championship. The Ravens won the first state title in program history by defeating Mendham in a shootout Nov. 12 at Franklin High School. With the game tied 1-1 after regulation, Robbinsville won the shootout 4-2 as senior goalie Ronit Rijhwani saved two penalty kicks.
“This entire year he has made huge saves to keep us in big games,” Smith said. “So when we went to penalties I had no doubt in my mind that he was going to save shots for us. I know I received the Man of the Match, but if I could give it to anyone else I would give it to my man Ronit.”
Coach Jeff Fisher noted that Rijhwani was not spectacular during the season because he didn’t have to be due to the Ravens strong defense. But he was steady throughout and would always make the big save when necessary.
He proved that in the biggest game of his life.
“He was big-time in that penalty shootout,” Fisher said. “I told the guys before, I said ‘We just gotta make sure we hit the back of the net because Ron’s gonna get us two saves.’ That’s the kind of confidence we have in him.
“He was just feeling it. We know it, he’s really good in practice, he’s hard to score on in practice. I think he felt almost like ‘This is my moment right here,’ and he was so confident that he was gonna make some saves for us.”
Junior Bora Turker, who had five goals in six state games, got the team’s lone goal (from Smith) in regulation, and converted one of the Ravens PKs along with Smith, Mitchell Shapiro and Alex Ivanov.
It capped a long, hard season for the Ravens, who faced adversity from the start when Turker missed the first 10 games with an injury. Robbinsville went 8-2 during that time to show its depth and desire.
“We did a fantastic job adapting to play without him,” Smith said. “We had guys like Mitchell Shapiro and Ethan Pagani scoring big-time goals off the bench as sophomores. The starters Nana (Kofi Appiah) and Adrian (Ivanov) really took the role of leaders up top to help position some of the younger guys that filled Bora’s role temporarily. Also, my fellow defensemen allowed low scoring games, making it significantly easier to win.”
Smith, whom Fisher called the best player he has ever coached, noted that when Turker returned it made Robbinsville that much more versatile on attack. It was all part of believing in themselves, which their coach felt was key.
“The big thing I wanted to instill in them this summer was just confidence,” Fisher said. “Confidence to go forward, to go attack. Confidence to get through tough opponents. And the whole family mentality as a team, just trying to be there for each other through thick and thin. You could see how much these kids cared for each other and how much they wanted to play for each other.”
The University of Delaware-bound Smith felt his coach deserved some accolades for preparing the Ravens for so many tense moments.
“A huge factor is coach Fish,” he said. “Fish is a prime example of resilience. He's had tough luck with groups in the past but from his failure he finds new drills, formations, and ways for his team to win. I think this trait has been spread throughout the team because everyone looks up to Fish. He’s a fantastic role model.”
Fisher and his staff had to keep the team positive throughout the season. Aside from Turker, numerous other injuries hit, which meant a continuous rotating lineup. But the “next man up” philosophy always prevailed.
The biggest example came at left back. After starter Ethan Brown got hurt, Hayden Herrara stepped in and did the job until he was injured. That left it up to junior Jason Testa, who started the final four state games.
Talk about pressure!
“But he did great,” Fisher said. “He’s not a natural left back by any means. It wasn’t necessarily a comfortable position for him to be in. He did phenomenal stepping into a really hard spot. I’m not surprised. He works really hard and was prepared to be anywhere on that back line he needed to be.”
Robbinsville actually entered the states on a two-game losing streak, falling to Notre Dame in the Mercer County Tournament semifinals, and to a talented Bordentown team.
Still, the Ravens were top-seeded and opened the Central Jersey Group III tourney against 16th-seeded Brick Memorial. What looked like a comfortable 3-1 win was actually a stern test as Brick took an early 1-0 lead. Smith had two goals and Turker one in the comeback.
“We had a lot of chances to put the ball away,” Fisher said. “Their goalie made some really nice saves. They weren’t a typical 16th seed the way they played. It was almost like a gut check for us, just to let us know that ‘Hey, this is the state tournament, everybody we play is gonna be good.’”
Next up was another Shore team that took the Ravens to the limit. Alex Ivanov scored an overtime goal from Nana Kofi Appiah for a 1-0 win over 9th-seeded Ocean Township.
“They were tough, they were really well organized,” Fisher said. “They knew how to defend and they put a lot of pressure on to try and score. It was just one of those games that we felt like it was gonna happen, but you’re just waiting. And then bam! Nana gets loose on the left side, whips a ball across and Alex has a great finish.”
Continuing its march through the Shore Conference, goals in the final eight minutes by Adrian Ivanov and Tucker provided a 2-0 win over 4th-seeded Neptune. Rijhwani had his third straight five-save game.
“We played fantastic against them,” Fisher said. “They came in with a kid up top that was phenomenal, big and fast, a professional left foot. But we have a pretty big, fast defender in the back (Smith) that was able to do a really good job on him, and the rest of the defense was able to pitch in as well.”
The CJ III final presented a Colonial Valley Conference rematch with Allentown, which the Ravens defeated 1-0 Sept. 15. But both sides had come a long way since then, and Robbinsiville had to dig deep to pull out the first sectional title in program history.
The Ravens trailed 1-0 with just six minutes remaining when Alex Ivanov set up Turker with the tying goal. Then, with two minutes remaining in the second overtime, the same two combined for the game-winner when Ivanov was taken down in the box and Turker converted the penalty kick for a history-making golden goal.
“Cade (Maglione) scored an incredible goal for them, and Bora hit the post and you start thinking ‘Man it’s not gonna happen,’” Fisher said. “So you just gotta push and think ‘No, it is gonna happen because it’s supposed to happen.’”
Venturing further than any Ravens team before it, Robbinsville met South Jersey III champ Cherry Hill West in the state semifinals. Will Schreyer converted from Smith to make it 1-0. After CHW tied it, Alex Ivanov set up twin brother Adrian, who snapped the tie with 9:03 remaining. Rijwhani came up with seven saves.
“They made it tough to create quality chances to score,” Fisher said. “We got up 1-0 and started feeling good. I felt like we kind of started to play worse when we got a lead. We started playing 100 miles per hour when we didn’t need to. We gave up the equalizer and it kind of woke us back up and we started playing again.”
All that remained was the memorable final, which began with a police escort out of town on the way to the game, and a fire engine escort back into town as they returned with the championship plaque.
“It was a great feeling bringing it back to Robbinsville,” Smith said. “Robbinsville isn't always producing state winners and great sports teams, so it means a lot to the community when it happens. That's what makes this title so much better.”
The all-star defender felt the team got great support from the other athletic programs in the school, just as the soccer team supported those programs as well.
“When the time came for us to play for a state title, every program was there to support us,” he said. “The support we received helped propel and motivate us forward in tough games. It meant a lot when people from the community that weren’t affiliated with the soccer team made 40-minute drives to see us play.”
Fisher also lauded the backing his team received from within the school and beyond.
“It was neat,” he said. “The community was amazing with the sendoff they gave us before we went to the final. The crowd was amazing, our Flock (the Raven student body cheering section) really showed up all year. There were a lot of exciting games. So the kids were really into it.”
Along with those already mentioned, other key players in the championship drive were Daniel Silva and Giacaomo Bottoni at midfield and Nolan O’Grady and Will Schreyer in the back. Stefano Muscera helped keep the team afloat in Turka’s absence until a back injury ended his season after a month.
It was a team that Fisher felt could do some good things this year “because, the last two senior groups have done a really good job building a culture for us. We were kind of close to breaking through, we were over .500 those years. This year we had a lot of guys coming back with experience who’d been through it. I definitely felt we had a shot to do something special, especially with the offensive guys we had.”
The really good news is seven starters return next year, including most of the Ravens goal scorers. But for now, it is time to savor the taste of a championship as an appetizer to Thanksgiving turkey.
Fisher, in his ninth year, called it “extremely satisfying” after all the work he and his staff put in over nine years.
As for the players?
“It’s a huge deal to me personally,” Smith said two days after the game. “I've been watching the replay of our penalty kicks and celebration over and over again. On a program level, this speaks volumes to the work past generations have done to put us in this spot as well as the resilience and togetherness that this team has.
“Winning a state championship will be something that will keep us together throughout our years. We all wanted to leave our marks on the program before we left the team.”
Mission accomplished. In the biggest way possible.