UNION TWP. – Colts Neck coach Doug Phillips does not feel his team quite played to its potential during Saturday’s NJSIAA Group III championship game at Kean University, but according to Phillips, it probably would not have mattered if it had.

Now four-time defending Group III champion Northern Highlands struck early during a 4-0 win over the Cougars during which senior forward and University of Virginia recruit Hana Kerner recorded a hat trick to cap her decorated high school career.

“To be honest, with the way they played today, I don’t think there’s any more we could have done. They were just flat out better than us,” Phillips said. “With how they move the ball and how quickly they counter, we tried to keep our defensive shape, but it’s hard when you just don’t see that level of team during the season. At times, we were able to show how good we are, but that team over there – that’s another level.”

Colts Neck players Frankie Tagliaferri (19), Allison Russo (middle) and Kayla Lee (21) walk off the field as Northern Highlands celebrates its NJSIAA Group III championship win on Saturday. (Photo by Matt Manley)

During her four-year varsity career, Kerner – the only senior on the Northern Highlands rosters – eclipsed the 50-goal mark and, more notably, played on four Group III championship teams. With Saturday’s win, Northern Highlands joins Ramapo, Morris Catholic and Lenape as the only girls soccer programs in N.J. to win four consecutive group titles.

“It’s really special,” Kerner said. “It says a lot about the program, the players involved and just what my teammates were able to accomplish this year.”

Kerner opened the scoring in the seventh minute, settling a cross from junior Ariel Somple and firing a low shot to the far left corner of the goal. Colts Neck battled the Highlanders to a stalemate for the next 32 minutes and appeared poised to head to halftime trailing by only a goal but Kerrner struck for her second goal on a quick-hitting counter attack with just 35 seconds left in the first half.

“We were talking and we thought if we could get to the half down by one, maybe we can make some adjustments, apply pressure in some areas of the field and maybe get a goal on a set piece or something like that,” Phillips said. “I still don’t know if it would have been enough because we would have left ourselves vulnerable in some areas, but that goal before the half was a backbreaker. Two goals against this team is tough.”

Armed with a two-goal lead, Northern Highlands was essentially untouchable the rest of the way, especially with Colts Neck vulnerable to the counter-attack. The Highlanders finished the season allowing only three total goals, two of which came in a 2-1 loss to Immaculate Heart Academy in the Bergen County Tournament final.

Colts Neck got off two second-half shots, while Kerner capped her swan song with her third goal in the 66th minute off of another counter. The senior slid the ball over the junior center midfielder Casey Richards, who gave it back with a through-ball that Kerner chased down while outrunning the Colts Neck defense. She finished the play with another low shot to the far side netting from a difficult angle.

Richards capped the scoring in the 69th minute with a 25-yard blast coming out of a short corner kick.

While Northern Highlands and junior goalkeeper Kayla Klatt finshed off the 21st shutout of the season, Colts Neck nearly scored 30 seconds into the game. Sophomore Frankie Tagliaferri played the ball through to junior Bridgette King, who beat the last defender to the ball. Klatt, however, smothered the shot by King and made her lone save of the game in the first minute to deny Colts Neck the first strike of the game.

Tagliaferri more than held her own against the Northern Highlands defense and opposite Kerner, but the defense did manage to hold the sophomore Penn State recruit without any dangerous looks at the goal.

“She was fantastic going forward and attacking us,” Kerner said of Tagliaferri. “Every time she got forward, it was threatening and it was scary. I think our defense did a fantastic job preventing any damage.”

Like Northern Highlands, Colts Neck took a roster light on seniors to Kean, but unlike the Highlanders, the Cougars were in uncharted waters, at least as far as the last decade is concerned. Colts Neck had not played for a group title since 2003 and ran into a team that has been nationally ranked all season long and positioned for success every season.

Colts Neck will miss senior captains Erika Kesselman and Halley Cartas, but the Cougars are primed to make another run in Group III next season. There remains, however, a caveat.

“Some of it is going to depend on Frankie’s schedule next year,” Phillips said, alluding to Tagliaferri’s commitment to the U-17 National team that took her away from the team at different points during this season. “She’s a special player who has a lot of unique opportunities and we’ll see how everything fits.

“You hate to say it, but a loss like this can really help a team like us that is trying to get to that next level. For the younger girls to see that celebration and to see that level of play, it gives us ammunition over the course of the year and in preseason to say, ‘We’ve got to work harder, we’ve got to get better. No complacency.’”




Box Score

Northern Highlands 4, Colts Neck 0





Northern Highlands (22-1)




Colts Neck (20-3)




Goals (Assists): (NH) Kerner (Somple) 7’, Kerner (Jamieson) 40’, Kerner (Richards) 66’, Richards (Somple) 69’
Shots: Northern Highlands, 9-4
Saves: (NH) Klatt 2; (CN) Eagan 2