No. 6 Cherry Hill East secures a spot in the finals after defeating No. 7 Washington Township 3-2 in an OT Thriller


Courtesy of Lin Asari

Sophomore Evan Pfeiffenberger rises for a header as the sun sets behind the turf fields at Decou Sports Complex.

“As a team we have been working together for 6 months and all the pieces came together on the last kick,” said Luke Luehrs (‘21) after his game-winning strike that sealed the Cougars’ spot in the Group 4 Southwest Soccer Finals.

The ball seemed to hang in the air for ages as it crossed midfield into the Minutemen’s half. Matt Mueller (‘21) made another huge playoff save and immediately launched it like a rocket, a prayer in a moment that needed all sorts of hope. It finally came down from its journey and landed at the feet of Luke Luehrs, with the eyes of countless fans on his every move.

He took a touch to the left, catching the Washington Township lagging behind. He took another touch to his left and set up the shot…

Then it all slowed down. His leg reared back, the defender stumbled, the leg swung through, and the place went quiet. All of Decou Sports Complex seemed to shut down for the span of three seconds as the ball was struck across the net.

The keeper dove, the line drive of a shot continued on its way… and then all of the prayers were answered. It flew past the goalie, gliding into the bottom right corner as the woosh of the net was the only sound heard.

Then the place erupted. Fans started yelling, parents and kids alike were on their feet, and the players stormed the field.

“It was euphoric,” said East coach Mike Melograna. “We had momentum, energy and confidence heading into overtime, but I always believe in extra magic.”

Luke Luehrs (‘21) and Jakub Samelko (‘23) prepare for an attack in the first half against Washington Township. (Courtesy of Lin Asari)

The shot sure was magical.

But this game that will be defined by one moment had an infamous 93 minutes and 9 seconds worth of action that preceded the fun.

The sky was gloomy with the sun peeking through the clouds, and the cold night was filled with the adrenaline as the hill on the side of the turf field began to fill with spectators.

The first half saw both teams get on the board with goals from Hugo Campoverde (‘21) of East and Aiden McGuigan (‘22) of Washington Township.
Another East goal would be called off after a controversial offsides call, but it was once again the work of Jakub Samelko (‘23), Adam Blumenthal (‘23) and Drew Luehrs (‘21) that kept East in the game early.

Hank Feudtner (‘21), Rei O’Brien (‘21), Pierce Atkins (‘22), Trey Shaw (‘23) and Jordan Grossman (‘21) were also key contributors throughout the match.

Coach Mike Melograna after his team secures another win in the NJSIAA Group 4 Playoffs. (Courtesy of Lin Asari)

In the second half, Township would once again get on the board first with Dan Reistle (‘23) hitting a shot that was just out of the reach of Mueller. East would answer late, though, with Robbie Awaida (‘21) volleying in a shot brilliantly from outside the box with little over 2 minutes remaining.

Samelko, Blumenthal and Luke Luehrs would have near misses late, but after controversy and dirty play, the atmosphere was even more electric entering overtime.

The first overtime period was back and forth, with both teams pressing hard.

“Our boys were exhausted,” said Melograna, “but they didn’t panic. They have endured these moments all season, and all they want to do is go out and win.”

In the second overtime, Mueller made a few key saves, and as he made his last one, he spotted a streaking Luehrs down the middle of the field, the rest being history.

The Cougars face off against No. 1 Shawnee on Saturday morning, travelling to the Renegades stadium at 10:30 a.m. in the final showdown of the season. The winner of that match will be crowned Group 4 Southwest champions, a title that holds lots of prestige.

“These games provide a positive distraction, and they have provided joy to the East community. It takes the staff, kids and families to create this sense of normalcy, giving fans something to cheer for,” Melograna said.

“All of the publications will probably pick Shawnee,” he continued. “But a win will prove that we belong in the elite conversation. It is a chance for validation against a good team.”

If we have learned anything from this year’s playoffs, it is to never count the Cougars out. Rancocas Valley, Vineland and Washington Township all saw what this team can do, and they still have something to prove against Shawnee. Whether it was in overtime or even penalty kicks, they have persevered through all sorts of adversity.

Eastside may or may not be the only publication to stand behind the Cougars this game, but one thing is for sure- they have momentum that the No. 1 Renegades do not. And that could make all the difference. ROLL COUGS.