ROXBURY _ Morris Knolls Kyra Bernardez knows she plays better when she doesn’t have to think, just react.
The Golden Eagles athlete’s reactions helped Morris Knolls earn a Morris County title.
Bernardez connected on a feed from a free kick with 4:59 left in regulation to lift Morris Knolls to a 1-0 triumph over West Morris on the turf at Roxbury High School on Saturday, Oct. 20 to give the Golden Eagles a second consecutive MCT championship.
Goalkeeper Katelyn Walsh had a strong performance with nine saves for second-seeded Morris Knolls. which is 15-1 and on a 12-game winning streak. Ava Mamary had five saves for top-seeded West Morris (9-4-1).
Madison Palma’s solid performance in the midfield earned her MVP honors. It was the fifth MCT title overall for Morris Knolls but three of them came before 1990. The win also helped the Golden Eagles avenge their only loss, a 2-1 defeat to West Morris on Sept. 15.
"It feels so good, especially because nobody thought we could get here again," Bernardez said. "We had a target on our backs. We showed people we don’t care about the target. We are just going to wipe it off."
The contest was close throughout, with both teams having scoring opportunities, but that all changed when Bernardez, a senior forward, knocked the ball in off a feed from Perna from about 15 yards out.
"I didn’t know where the goalie was," Bernardez said. "I just knew that I was so close to the goal to shoot it I usually think too much. At that point I had to think - just don’t think. I think it landed lower right. Honestly, I just saw it go into the goal and I ran."
Morris Knolls' best scoring opportunity up until that point was a Madison Palma shot that bounced off the crossbar in the 66th minute.
Gabbie Lara triggered the scoring play and Maddison Perna laid out the pass for Bernardez to run onto. Perna, who scored the game-winning goal in the semifinal contest against Hanover Park, is comfortable making that play.
"I'm running to the ball and getting to the free kicks," Perna said. “That is pretty much our game plan, running in and getting the flicks. Being there and being part of the goal, I just feel it's awesome."
The Golden Eagles overcame some obstacles. A bus mixup brought them to the game just 30 minutes before the starting time so they had to get loose in a hurry. Morris Knolls was also missing midfielder Rebecca Racine, who triggers much of their offense but had to miss the game due to an ankle injury. Those factors plus West Morris’ physical nature didn’t make playing the game any easer.
Defensively, the Golden Eagles played well and Walsh, the junior goalkeeper, was on her game. West Morris sent diagonal balls into dangerous areas for players like Emily Leyson and Leanne Engemann to run on to but Walsh regularly left her line to clear them away before anything could develop.
"Kate did a great job," Morris Knolls coach Stephan Zdanowicz said. "She stepped into big shoes this year and really excelled. There has been no dropoff. She made some huge saves, whether it was coming out and winning the ball with her feet or her hands. The game has evolved and these kids have a lot of experience playing at a higher level. That really helps us."