GMC players showcased in Soccer for a Cause Charity Festival

After spending the last three weeks collecting donations for multiple beneficiaries, the players and coaches committed to the second annual Soccer for a Cause Charity Festival finally got their chance to shine.

The event, held Saturday at Metuchen High School, showcased 20 Greater Middlesex Conference girls soccer teams who had been fundraising for two New Jersey-based nonprofits and collecting non-perishable items for a regional food bank.

“I was humbled by everything today,” said Metuchen School District Superintendent Vincent Caputo, who was elated to host the festival.

“To see the seriousness and the commitment from the girls and the teams, and on a sports level to see these great student-athletes out there and all these coaches who are some of the best in the state, I’m just so happy we could play a small part.”

Participants included East Brunswick star Mikayla Mandleur who recently committed to the nationally ranked Rutgers University women’s soccer team, Wardlaw-Hartridge forward Angelina Vargas who played last fall for the Dominican Republic National Team, and Metuchen midfielder Alexandra Lipshutz who leads the state in assists.

“This is one of the only times in high school soccer where you get to see kids from all different schools together on one day,” said East Brunswick coach Kevin Brady, one of the nation’s winningest active mentors with 417 career victories.

“This is a club soccer environment that you actually get to experience in high school soccer. You get to see all the kids you play with and against for 10 years growing up all in the same place. I saw kids coming off the bus hugging kids from other schools. They are just running over and so happy to see each other, and that’s the kind of connectivity a day like this celebrates.”

To the casual observer, the festival may have appeared to be organized chaos. Ten games were played at staggered start times across four fields with approximately 400 competitors convening at one point during the gorgeous fall day for a ceremony inside the high school’s football stadium.

To the soccer aficionado, including a college coach in attendance, the well-orchestrated event, however, was an opportunity to watch some of the state’s top female student-athletes compete at one convenient location during a year commemorating the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

Carteret coach Theresa Rossi, who as a player in 1991 led East Brunswick to a No. 2 national ranking and was the school’s first female athlete to earn first-team All-America honors, said the festival provided an opportunity to witness the sport’s growth.

“Besides these teams coming together on a beautiful day, you saw community and you saw people sitting on the sidelines from other teams watching you,” Rossi said. “I don’t think it’s about scouting, but about watching what the talent can be and us representing that. When we are coming off the field, there’s camaraderie among all the coaches. We don’t look at our rankings, but what we all have behind us.”

After her team played one of the festival’s morning-round games, Rossi had an opportunity to watch incumbent all-conference selections such as Katie DeGaetano of North Brunswick, Shae Allen of Piscataway, Taylor Pezulich of Woodbridge and Kaitlyn Born of South Brunswick, as well as several talented league newcomers.

Event organizers who wanted competitive games, each of which a three-person crew officiated, did an outstanding job of scheduling. Six of the contests were decided by a single goal including two in overtime, while two games generated 2-0 results.

In the festival’s marquee matchup, East Brunswick scored a 2-0 victory over Woodbridge in a battle of unbeaten division leaders. Mikayla Mandleur assisted on Samara Stein’s goal in the 17th minute and added an insurance tally in the 79th minute off a feed from Emma Bergamotto. The shutout was the seventh for East Brunswick, which has allowed just one goal all season and is ranked 15th in the state.

The purpose of the event, however, was greater than the outcome of any of the games. The 20 participating teams were working as one toward the common goal of making a difference in the lives of others less fortunate.

“All of these things going on together really united all these different schools,” Brady said shortly after all the players, clad in specially designed Soccer for a Cause t-shirts, gathered in the football stadium for the ceremony. “Seeing all those kids lined up across the field was just an incredibly powerful image.”

The charity festival is designed to create a competitive environment and develop friendly rivalries among participating teams while emphasizing good sportsmanship, positive communication, mutual respect, and giving back to the community through a collaborative effort.

“The community service part is something we don’t do enough of,” Metuchen coach Mike Knoth said. “I think coaches know that’s an expectation when you are taking on a high school program. It’s not like club ball. It’s different. We get to deal with life skills, and they need to pay it forward, and if somebody doesn’t show kids how to do that, they just don’t know.”

All funds raised from the festival will benefit The Marisa Tufaro Foundation and Go4theGoal, while all nonperishable food items collected will benefit REPLENISH, a regional food bank serving Middlesex County residents.

Heather O’Reilly, an East Brunswick alumnus and one of the world’s greatest women’s soccer players, recorded a special video message for the participants which The Marisa Tufaro Foundation posted on social media a day before the festival.

“I just want to congratulate all the teams and coaches that are participating in this amazing event to raise money for a really good cause,” said O’Reilly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion. “You guys are awesome. Way to use this beautiful game in a beautiful way.”

Since its inception five years ago, The Marisa Tufaro Foundation has donated a quarter of a million dollars to assist pediatric patients and underserved children throughout the greater Middlesex County area.

Go4theGoal’s mission is to improve the lives of children battling cancer nationwide by providing financial support, developing and implementing unique hospital programs, funding innovative research, and granting personal wishes. All money raised for Go4theGoal through the soccer festival will be used exclusively to help local children battling cancer.

REPLENISH, which distributed more than 4.7 million pounds of food last year alone, serves a network of more than 140 local food pantries, soup kitchens and social service agencies.

The Soccer for a Cause Charity Festival fittingly occurs in September, which is National Hunger Awareness Month and National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

In the weeks leading up to the showcase, the participating teams engaged in a friendly competition off the field to raise money for the two charities.

North Brunswick, East Brunswick, Old Bridge, Monroe, Piscataway, South Brunswick, J.P. Stevens, Edison, Carteret, and St. Thomas Aquinas raised money for The Marisa Tufaro Foundation.

Metuchen, Colonia, Woodbridge, Sayreville, New Brunswick, South Plainfield, J.F. Kennedy, Spotswood, Wardlaw-Hartridge and Middlesex raised money for Go4theGoal.

Old Bridge and Colonia were the top fundraisers for their respective charities. Each team received a commemorative plaque during the ceremony on the football field, where State Senator Patrick Diegnan and Greater Middlesex Conference Executive Director Frank Noppenberger thanked the players and coaches for their collective efforts.

“We could not be prouder,” Diegnan said. “I am just so happy to be here and know that our future is in the hands of you young people. Thank you for what you do. God bless you and keep up the good work.”

The Marisa Tufaro Foundation’s namesake would have graduated last year from Edison High School, which was the second biggest fundraiser for the nonprofit in the soccer festival and also donated bags of food to REPLENISH.

Born with a severe cardiac defect, Marisa survived six open-heart surgeries and a heart transplant before succumbing to a rare form of cancer (post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder) in 2017 following a valiant battle. She was just 13 years old.

Despite being hospitalized for more than two years and maintaining hundreds of doctor’s appointments, Marisa was an honor roll student involved in multiple extracurricular activities who lived a vibrant life that inspired.

In addition to donating a quarter of a million dollars to fulfill its mission, The Marisa Tufaro Foundation has also spearheaded multiple community initiatives resulting in the collection of thousands of toys, nonperishable food items, winter coats, baby supplies and other items for donation upon which it has placed no monetary value.

The foundation has also awarded $26,500 in college academic scholarships to 38 high school graduates, and an additional 13 scholarships for middle school and elementary school students to attend a weeklong summer art camp at Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum.

Brady, whose team was among the 10 which fundraised for The Marisa Tufaro Foundation, said he is already looking forward to next year’s festival.

“Seeing how all these athletes that compete against each other are coming together to share a common experience is so powerful,” Brady said. “I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

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