UNION - Wall senior goalkeeper Alex Panasuk did not get to cap her standout career by winning an outright NJSIAA Group III championship, but she did end it with yet another shutout.

Panasuk and the Crimson Knights defense nailed down their 21st shutout of the season Saturday against perennial Group III contender Northern Highlands, but the Highlanders kept Wall off the board as well as the two one-loss teams settled for a scoreless draw and a share of the Group III title.

Although Wall did not win its first Group III title game appearance since 1998, the Crimson Knights did earn a share of their first ever overall state championship.

Panasuk and fellow seniors Jessica Textor and Kelsey Nies - both defenders - are the only three seniors in the Wall starting lineup and all three figured prominently into the result Saturday.

 

"It's a great feeling," Panasuk said. "Everyone worked so hard this season and I can't thank everyone enough for playing their hearts out today. We deserve to be champs, even if it's co-champs."

Juniors defenders Hailee Reinhardt and Maggie Wishart also turned in strong efforts to help the defense. Wishart anchored the back line from the center back spot, while Reinhardt marked Northern Highlands leading scorer Eva Hurm and also saved a pair of potential goals off the endline during the first five minutes of the game.

"We weren't even planning on marking (Hurm) but Hailee was doing such a good job on her that we decided at halftime to stay with it," fourth-year coach Mike Juska said.

After Reinhardt helped Wall escape a shaky opening to the game, the Crimson Knights settled into the match and dominated play over the final 12 minutes of the first half. Junior Jenna Karabin unleashed a pair of dangerous shots, the second of which drilled the crossbar in the 36th minute.

"I think it was more nerves for us at the beginning," Juska said. "We haven't been in this position as a program in 18 years, so this was new territory.

"I kept looking down at my watch, hoping to get through those first ten minutes. Then we settled in and once we realized we could play with them, we started playing simple soccer, playing feet.

Neither team threatened the other during the second half of regulation, but Northern Highlands had one last wave of offense in the reserves before the final whistle. Hurm shook loose in the 95th minute by dribbling the ball to a spot 12 yards from the right post and, with a defender on her hip, uncorked a shot that sailed over the crossbar.

"They (Northern Highlands) held a lot of people back, but he had to respect Eva so we also held numbers back," Juska said. "Some of their corner kicks were very dangerous, but I was very confident defensively because it wasn't like they were getting a ton of opportunities in live play."

In the 98th, Claudia Mischler got behind the back line on a cross and poked the ball past Panasuk, but wide of the right post.

"The ball came in and I knew I had to come out and get it," Panasuk said. "I just figured I'd have to try to block it somehow and the shot ended up going wide, which is all I can ask for."

While Wall held Hurm - a 21-goal scorer this season - quiet, Northern Highlands did the same to Wall junior Amy Paternoster by surrounding her on her touches and taking away options in front of her.

"I think since I was playing center mid, there were a lot of people around me and I do think that they were marking me pretty heavily," said Paternoster, who finished her junior season with 28 goals and 21 assists. "I think I just found feet, found my teammates and at the end of the day, it's about getting the ball out and playing fast."

Northern Highlands was making its sixth consecutive appearance in the Group III final after winning four straight from 2011 to 2014 and losing to Colts Neck in last year's championship game.

With eight junior starters set to return as seniors in 2017, Wall's co-championship this season might just be the penultimate phase in its quest to win an outright Group III title. Wall lost in the Central Jersey Group III final in each of the past three seasons and won the Shore Conference Tournament in 2014.

The Crimson Knights suffered their only loss this season to Colts Neck, 2-1, in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals and bounced back by turning in five shutouts in the NJSIAA Tournament en route to a share of the Group III championship.

"I think a lot of the juniors are excited for next year because we do have one more year together," Paternoster said. "I know we're losing a few seniors. Alex Panasuk was awesome for us this year. We're definitely going to miss her along with our other seniors, Jess and Kelsey, but I think we're excited for next year. I think we can use this as motivation to say, 'Let's not be co-champs. Let's go win it.'"

 

Box Score

Wall 0, Northern Highlands 0

1 2 OT OT F
Wall (24-1-1) 0 0 0 0 0
No. Highlands (21-1-1) 0 0 0 0 0

Shots: Northern Highlands, 15-9
Saves: (W) Alex Panasuk 4; (NH) Sarah Ghorashi 3

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