Deirdre Walsh stopped two shots to earn the shutout for the third-seeded Royals, who will play Dwight Englewood in the Non-Public North B final on Thursday in Perth Amboy.
Morris Catholic, the seventh seed, finished its season at 11-7-2. The Crusaders, who have been playing without standout center midfielders Tara Sobierajski and Taylor Shannahan because of injuries, came out so flat during the first half that Crusaders coach Andy Rotsides changed formations and did some liberal substituting in the second half to shake his team up. Morris Catholic responded with some good scoring opportunities late but they did not connect.
"I think they underestimated Oak Knoll,'' Rotsides said. "They were looking ahead to Thursday. Oak Knoll did to us what we did to Newark Academy (a 1-0 win last week). They came out strong. They put pressure on us. That's what happened today. They just wanted it more.''
The Crusaders may have panicked a bit like young and inexperienced teams are known to do. They rushed passes and hammered long balls rather than keeping the ball on the ground and patiently developing an attack from the midfield.
"We wanted to play possession but we were just banging the ball,'' Rotsides said. "Then we lost our shape. You can't play that way.''
Many of the Crusaders are underclassmen and now have a better understanding of the importance of intensity in state tournament play.
"We only had one senior starting,'' Rotsides said. "It does make a difference. A lot of them have never been in a big game like this. It's a big lesson that they learned today.''
Morris Catholic had only one quality scoring opportunity in the first half but it nearly gave them the lead. Twelve minutes into the contest, freshman Jillian Sudo fired a rocket from about 15 yards out that forced Oak Knoll keeper Walsh to make a sprawling punch save that sent the ball over the crossbar.
Otherwise, the Crusaders struggled much of the first 40 minutes to keep the Royals out of their end. Oak Knoll, playing on its grass field, finally capitalized when Ford intercepted a failed Morris Catholic clearing pass and placed the ball into the left corner of the net with 7:45 left in the first half.
"Someone was trying to clear,'' Ford said. "I came in and tapped it with my foot and put it in. We were just being aggressive. We had so much confidence that we just got it and popped it in.''
Although Ford is a sophomore, she did play in some of last year's state tournament games and was a more confident player on the field this time around.
"Last year, I was on jayvee and I got pulled up to varsity for states,'' Ford said. "This year, has been totally different. I love it.
"State tournament games are a lot of pressure, but if we just keep doing what we're doing, we have a good shot (at a title).''
At halftime, Rotsides challenged his players to be aggressive and switched formations from the classic 4-4-2 to a 3-4-3. The Crusaders often use the formation when trailing late in games, so the players were comfortable with it. The move ended up creating offense for Morris Catholic and befuddling Oak Knoll's transition game.
"I moved Tina (Nassany) to the left outside midfield,'' Rotsides said. "We were able to create a couple of chances. We had four breakaways and you can't win games when you miss four chances like that.''
The Royals lost track of the extra forward from time to time and, although they were near misses, the close plays lifted the Crusaders' energy and enthusiasm. Morris Catholic's best scoring chance probably came with 13 minutes left in regulation. Samantha Garzon took the ball down the left sideline after a throw in and worked it to Sudo. The freshman's centering pass gave Marissa Evans an open shot at the net but her effort soared over Oak Knoll's net.
The pressure the Crusaders put on the Royals eventually opened up some counterattacks. Oak Knoll put the game away when Ford made another play. She was able to gain advantage on a breakaway, elude a Crusaders defender and slip a low shot into the right corner of the net with 2:14 left in the game for an insurance goal.
After the traditional handshake line and a brief meeting, Morris Catholic left the soccer field with many of the players still visibly upset at the result. They will lose five seniors and only one starter (Shannon Coffey) to graduation, so many of them will be back next fall. They will have nine months to think about an opportunity wasted.
"It's good that they are upset,'' Rotsides said. "They will remember this. They usually don't get too emotional. They were upset when we lost to Parsippany in the county tournament but not like this.''