ROXBURY _ The last time the Morris Knolls girls soccer was in the Morris County Tournament final, most of the current players were toddlers.
On Saturday, Oct. 21, the Golden Eagles walked away with the title.
Laura Budwick connected off a Madison Palma pass with 24:48 left in regulation to lift Morris Knolls to a 1-0 triumph over Mendham at Roxbury High School.
Goalkeeper Madison Somogyi made five saves, including two spectacular ones early in the game, to take Most Valuable Player honors.
Morris Knolls (14-2-1), the top-seeded team, had not made an appearance in the finals since 2002. The Golden Eagles last won titles in 1987 and 1988. Seventh-seeded Mendham dropped to 9-4-3. It was the Minutemen's second appearance overall and first appearance since they won it in 2005.
"It feels amazing,'' Budwick said. "We worked so hard so it just feels so great.''
The seeds of Morris Knolls' victory were sown in struggles over the past few years. This year, the Golden Eagles were determined to capture the title.
"We knew this season was special,'' Budwick said. "We wanted to gain respect from everyone. Coming into this game we were not projected to win initially. We wanted to prove everyone wrong.''
Much of the focus was on Golden Eagles seniors Bella Patterne, Danica Lee, Kristen Gioioso, Jessica Heitmann, Budwick and Somogyi, who all play major roles in the success of the team.
"Our six seniors were with us when we really struggled,'' Morris Knolls coach Stephan Zdanowicz said. "Those six seniors have been battling and fighting to make this group a family and bring them to this point. The addition of Maddison Perna and Becca (Racine) added to the intensity of the group and the commitment of the group. The underclassmen fight for them because they have treated them so well. There is great team chemistry right now.''
Somogyi rose to the occasion early, then as the game went on, Morris Knolls exhibited quality play in the midfield as its heart - Budwick, Perna and Patterne - won more and more balls and their victories were able to create better scoring chances.
"They have a strong back line and strong forwards so controlling the midfield was a pivotal part of it,'' Budwick said.
The Golden Eagles finally broke through in the 56th minute when Budwick took a cross from Palma, who ran in from the left side, controlled it at the top of the box and took a right footed shot at the upper right corner of the goal.
"I remember making a cutback (move) at the top of the 18,'' Budwick said. "I took it to my right and the upper 90 was open.''
"It was off of a dummy (play) from Jess Heitmann,'' Zdanowicz added. "That was nice. We've been practicing that.''
Mendham had the better scoring opportunities in the early going. One Minutemen effort hit a crossbar and bounced away. Another clear breakaway forced Somogyi off her line. She collided with the Minutemen player as the ball skidded to the left of the goal.
"I just couldn't let her score,'' Somogyi said. "It was body and I prayed that I got some of the ball. It was will more than anything. I just put it in my head that no one was going to score today.''
Somogyi credited her defense, Casey Morren, Gabby Lara and especially center back Kristen Gioioso.
"I played with Kristen since I was seven years old,'' Somogyi said. "There was absolutely no one else I would have in front of me for this game. I trust her more than anyone on the planet for that. Finishing the season with the girls I started it off with is icing on the cake. It is perfect.''
Although they knew that the Mendham scorers, including Allie Lutz, who scored twice in the semifinals, could be lethal Morris Knolls didn't do anything special to defend them.
"We just played our game,'' Somogyi said. "If we needed to make adjustments, we would make them. We knew that coming in and playing our game would be the best thing for us.''
They didn't man mark but focused on pressure coverage. They did know what Mendham's offensive tendencies were.
"We knew that (Lutz) was a really strong left footed player so our concern was (Ava Brandt) feeding her the ball through the midfield,'' Somogyi said. "Our defenders contained that and shut it down when they could."
As for Somogyi, her coaches and teammates know that the senior goalie comes to play.
"She's a gamer,'' Zdanowicz said. "She loves soccer. She lives for it. She takes it personally. In the goal box everything is hers. She came into her own tonight.''
Morris Knolls took the balance of play the last 20 minutes and severely limited Mendham's scoring chances. Overall, Morris Knolls defeated Jefferson (4-0), Hanover Park (1-0), Parsippany Hills (1-0 in overtime) and Mendham to capture the well-earned title.
"We worked so hard,'' Somogyi said. "We put so much heart and effort into the season. We pulled together for the seniors and it is amazing.''
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