JEFFERSON — The outward displays of emotion ran the gambit for the Jefferson boys soccer team as the clock struck zero.
Buddy Jacobus grinned ear-to-ear as he sat behind the wheel of the trainer’s golf cart. Kevin Leonhard voiced disbelief at the fact that there was now a trophy in his team’s possession. Midfielder Cole Fitzgerald placed both hands on the top of his head and stared skyward.
The rise of the Falcons program reached cloud nine as its players and coaches celebrated its first sectional title with a 1-0 victory over third-seeded Ramsey on a bitter-cold Friday afternoon at Jefferson High School.
“This team works hard every single day since Aug. 12, I’ve never seen a group of kids care so much about one another,” Jacobus said. “We’re always there for each other. We’re the definition of a true team and I’m so glad that I was able to do it with this group of kids.”
Falcons nine-year head coach Travis Gage stood removed from the celebration near the bench seemingly grasping the magnitude of his team’s achievement.
For decades, Jefferson had been the laughingstock of the area, single victories were celebrated and any type of championship seemed outside the realm of reality.
Not on this day.
“Disbelief probably, because it took 12 years to get here,” said Gage of his emotions after the game. “That’s a long time, so when it happens, it’s like, you just can’t put it into words really. It’s something that you want to happen, and it took 12 years to happen. It was more of a ’Wow’ moment.”
The Falcons (19-1-1) will now take on Bernards, the North 2, Group 2 champions, in the Group 2 semifinals at 6 p.m. on Wednesday night at Millburn High School.
They had been building toward this moment. Back in 2015, they had their first winning season in 29 years just as this year’s senior class was moving down Weldon Road to the high school.
After going 8-12 in 2016, Jefferson claimed the program’s first and second division crowns in the next two seasons. The Falcons’ state tournament hopes were wiped away in the quarterfinals in back-to-back seasons.
But the Falcons would not be denied this season.
“We had to work really hard as a program my freshman and sophomore years because we didn’t have that much skill, it was blue-collar, we always work hard,” senior center back Dan Profaca said. “As time went on, it was blue-collar with skill. It just kept going to that.
“We have guys going year-round with club and they’re transitioning that to here and making everyone else better. That helps a lot with overall practice.”
They stormed through the regular season with their lone loss coming against Mount Olive in the second round of the Morris County Tournament and went a perfect 10-0 inside the division.
Their postseason lives were down to their last gasp until Bryan Gaviria jolted them back to life with a tying goal against Pequannock with two minutes left in the regulation of the teams’ semifinal.
Jefferson’s magic run continued on Friday as it grabbed its first hardware to add to its division championships on the banner.
Fitzgerald saw the progression to title winners while running the sidelines as a ball boy when his brother Liam helped the team end the drought of winning records. Now, he’s a massive part of the revolution of Falcons soccer
“I saw them go from six to eight to 10 wins all the way to 16,” Fitzgerald said. “Last year we got 15 and now this year getting to 19 wins, it’s amazing. And getting the sectional title, it’s outstanding to see the progress that this program has made over the years.”
The Falcons sent the message that they were no longer underdogs in the opening four minutes of action.
Leonhard got Ramsey’s attention with a bicycle kick in the center of the box that rang off the crossbar in the third minute. Less than a minute later, Jacobus lofted a cross from the left wing that sailed over the head of Bryan Gaviria and found Fitzgerald in the middle for a header that hit the back of the net to give Jefferson a 1-0 lead.
“Buddy puts in a dangerous ball and the keeper has to come to punch it out.” Fitzgerald said. “He put it in the air and I’m 10 yards away, and said ’Oh, I can get to this ball.’ I put it in the back of the net and we defend for 76 minutes and hold on to the lead.”
The lone goal proved to be the difference as the Falcons back line of Profaca, John Becker, Luke Hughen and James Ryan — a group that has only allowed nine goals over the course of the season — stayed at home and was not swayed by Ramsey’s attempts to stretch the home side out wide and use its technical approach to crack through.
Falcons goalie Jacob Wacker was only called to action on two shots from distance as the defense in front of him clogged the Rams’ shooting lanes.
“They just didn’t stop working,” Wacker said. “We knew that this was it. Other games there are times that you might take a play off because it’s natural, you get tired, but today, there was no room for getting tired. We stop for a second, especially in these conditions, they could score a goal. We couldn’t let that happen. We had to keep a clean sheat.“
In the opening 20 minutes of the second half, Jefferson searched for an insurance goal and had a pair of quality chances snuffed out by Ramsey goalie Ryan Haskell.
In the 52nd minute, Gavin Mullin stole the ball from a Rams defender near the end line and played a bouncing ball into the box but Fitzgerald could only get the ball of his foot on the shot and Haskell smothered the chance. A minute later, Falcons midfielder Thomas Edge fired a shot from the left side of the box that Haskell dove to his right to save.
The best chance for Ramsey came in the 66th minute off its first corner kick of the game. George Haskell played a low pass to the top of the box to Parker Simpson in space, and his shot to the right corner was cleared by Becker right in front of the post.
Jefferson put almost all of its numbers behind the ball for the final 20 minutes in a strategy Gage called its “victory formation.” And its pressure-driven approach worked as a handful of frenetic Ramsey chances slipped high and wide.
“We just trying to clear the ball wide and wherever the ball went we would shift to that side,” Profaca said. “Clog that side and then we would just shadow where the ball would go. That worked down the last two, three minutes. When they got their corners, I had faith in our team. I knew that we wanted it more than them, and it all came down to will.”
With the win, the Falcons have their latest chance to prove their merit on the state level in the Group 2 semifinals. And they don’t feel like their epic run is done just yet.
“It’s a great opportunity for us on Wednesday,” Gage said. “It’s going to be hard to guy these guys down from their high and focused on Wednesday, but they’re going to enjoy this and then we have to get back to work. We’ve got more stuff to accomplish and more stuff to set.“