Each of the prior two years, the goal was not attained, not reached. So this represented the last chance that the North Bergen High School boys' soccer team had to collect the HCIAA Coviello title that had eluded them the last two seasons.
"This team had basically been together for three years," North Bergen head coach John Belluardo said. "We came close, but there was no cigar."
In 2006, the Bruins lost to Memorial in the title game. A year ago, the Bruins fell to Dickinson in the semifinals. The chances were slipping away, especially since the core players were all seniors and because of the fact that the HCIAA will become extinct after this scholastic year, thanks to the NJSIAA's realignment.
So the 2008 season represented one last chance to achieve that elusive dream. And it all came down to one final game against Memorial, the two-time defending Coviello champions.
The Coviello title game, played Sunday at North Bergen's Bruins Stadium, was not played at a pace that the Bruins were accustomed to.
"I think because it was our biggest rivalry and because what was at stake that we got nervous," said senior goalkeeper Danny Valencia. "We didn't play like we normally do."
"They would score and then we would score," senior forward Andrew Buitron said. "We had to overcome that. It wasn't normal for us."
"We did well the whole season," senior midfielder Cesar Ventura said. "We couldn't let it slip away. The pace of the game wasn't the way we like it. The play kept changing. We had to come through."
But in the end, the Bruins prevailed, getting a 4-3 uncharacteristic victory, thanks to two goals from Buitron, who will go down as one of the most improved players in the history of North Bergen soccer.
A year ago, Buitron was a little-used reserve forward.
"I scored maybe three goals last year," Buitron admitted.
But this season, when standout forward Willy Cardenas went down with a severe hamstring in pre-season, Buitron stepped forward and emerged as a go-to scorer.
"If someone would have told me before the season that Andrew would become our leading scorer, I would have had to say, 'No way,' " Belluardo said. "But once he got the chance to play, he really came through, especially in big games. He was always there, always around the ball. He definitely was a key factor. I never would have expected that. But, hey, sometimes things work out for the best."
Scoring the two goals in the championship game enabled Buitron to earn Most Valuable Player honors for the match and also gave him 19 goals for the year. That is an astonishing turnaround, especially coming from a player that no one expected to be a factor at all.
"It's pretty amazing," Buitron said. "Everything that has happened has been amazing. I definitely stepped up, but I just did my own part. I feel lucky just to be a part of it."
"I told Andrew before the game that he needed to do what he does best," Belluardo said. "We needed someone to step up and he did it again."
It also enabled the Bruins to win their first county title in 16 years. The Bruins were back-to-back HCIAA champions in 1991 and 1992 and hadn't won since.
Ventura was the one who was expected to lead and did. A four-year starter, Ventura emerged as the premier midfielder in Hudson County and made sure that the diverse Bruin attack was always in line.
"This game meant everything to us," Ventura said. "It was a special game for a lot of reasons. We were playing the two-time defending champions and they're also our main rivals. North Bergen also hadn't won in 16 years, so we knew that. So it was a big thing for us. We had to give everything we had and it paid off."
When the final whistle sounded and the Bruins had their long-awaited championship, there was a wide range of emotions. There was joy and exuberance, but there were also many tears.
"There were a lot of emotions out on that field," Belluardo said. "It was the culmination of finally putting it all together. It was the end of a perfect season. It was a great feeling when that whistle blew, because we all realized we did it."
Belluardo said that he began to wonder whether he would ever get a chance to win another title. After all, he's now the dean of Hudson County high school soccer coaches, having been in charge of the Bruins for the last 23 seasons.
"Of course, it's rewarding, because it had been such a long time," Belluardo said. "We had been in the playoffs every year and we came close a few times. Sure, there's a level of satisfaction, knowing fully well we went as far as we did. We climbed that final hurdle."
Belluardo said that it was particularly special, not just because of the time between the last title and this one, but because how close the team is.
"Their camaraderie is tremendous," Belluardo said. "On Saturday night, before the game, they all went to Cesar Ventura's house to watch a soccer game together and discuss the championship game. They were all together. They all enjoy being with each other. It shows you just how close they really are."
Goalkeeper Valencia put it all into the best perspective.
"It's our senior year and we finally won it," Valencia said. "It feels really good to finally get it. We worked so hard for so long and it's really special, especially because it's my senior year."
Ventura went one step further.
"This is the strongest team North Bergen ever had," said Ventura, whose team improved to a stellar 17-1-1 with the victory. "We're the county champs and no one can take that from us."
And yes, these Bruins will be the final HCIAA champion ever, as the league will become history by the time the next scholastic season begins next September. So that's another feather to place in their caps.
"It really was a special season," Belluardo said.
The NJSIAA state playoffs awaits the Bruins, who earned the No. 1 seed in the North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs and were scheduled to face Fair Lawn in the first round after press time Thursday. Maybe a few wins in the states can make it even more of a memorable season.