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Haddon Twp. boys finish as state co-champs in soccer

WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. - The team surrounded the trophy at midfield, standard procedure for the obligatory postgame photo op.

WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. - The team surrounded the trophy at midfield, standard procedure for the obligatory postgame photo op.

Their faces were red and somber. They looked physically spent. Tired. And cold. And someone had to call out and remind them:

"Come on, everyone, smile. You're state champions."

It certainly didn't look or feel that way for the Haddon Township boys' soccer team in the moments after the game ended.

It's part of the initial awkwardness that comes with being crowned co-state champion, which is what happened to the Hawks after their match with Verona in Sunday's Group 1 state championship at Kean University ended in a 1-1 tie.

"It's a weird feeling," senior keeper Kieran Burns said. "We played out of our minds today and we wanted to win."

Still, this will go down as the second state championship in the history of Haddon Township boys' soccer. It capped a dominant postseason run for the Hawks, who outscored opponents by 22-2 in six postseason games.

For the Hawks' 14 seniors, it culminated the most successful chapter in team history. The seniors finished with a 51-16-5 record over four seasons, winning three South Jersey titles, making two state finals appearances, and, finally, claiming a share of the state title.

"We came in here thinking we should win this game," said Michael Reece, a senior midfielder who scored the Hawks' only goal off a 40-yard free kick with 37 minutes left in the second half. "But our season was great. We've been playing together our whole lives and working toward this. This success means the world to me."

Though they weren't satisfied with the outcome, players and coaches for the Hawks still said they'd prefer this to penalty kicks.

"This is a team game," Reece said. "And you wouldn't want to see this game decided by an individual effort on a penalty kick."

Hawks coach Jim Bonder is actually on the NJSIAA executive committee that decided to keep the current co-champion system in tact.

"I know this isn't the same feeling as when you win outright," he said. "But, with that said, I certainly see the side of why you don't want penalties to decide a winner."

On a bitter cold and windy day, there was plenty for the Hawks (19-3-3) to be frustrated about before the game was over.

They looked on their way to winning in regulation before being called for a hand ball in the box with 17 minutes left. Verona's leading goal scorer Jack Farrell slid the penalty kick past Burns to even the score.

"He made kind of a weird run, which threw me off a little bit," Burns said.

After its goal, Verona (12-10-1) held an advantage in the run of play through the rest of the second half and two 10 minute overtimes. But a Hawks defense that has been brilliant all season turned away most opportunities before Burns had to get involved.

Burns, a star for the last four seasons, finished with six saves, including two clutch saves in the final minute of regulation.

The fact that it took a handball in the box to break the Hawks defense on Sunday summoned the same feelings as the final outcome of the game:

It was frustrating. But it was the right call. And it doesn't take away from a great season.

"Playing with these guys are memories that I will have forever," Burns said. "I love my class of seniors and I love this team. Words can't explain my gratitude to them.

"When we look back on this day, it's not really sad, it's not really happy. We just kind of played a good game."

Haddon Township 0 1 0 0 - 1

Verona 0 1 0 0 - 1

Goals: HT- Michael Reece; V- Jack Farrell.

Saves: HT - Kieran Burns 6; V- Billy Czupak 3.