SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD — Joey Linder and Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s stout back line has been a brick wall all season. Since the state tournament started last week, that unit has only gotten stronger.
As the circumstances have become increasingly more important, those defense stalwarts like Linder, Alex Levy, Ryan Widman, and Michael Dieu have been a nightmare for opponents to penetrate against. Entering Monday’s semifinal against North Hunterdon, it hadn’t allowed a goal in the state tournament, and that streak continued.
Linder helped anchor down a Raider backline that posted its third straight shutout to open up state tournament play, and dished out the lone assist as No. 1 Scotch Plains-Fanwood bounced No. 5 North Hunterdon, 1-0, in the sectional semifinal Monday at rainy Wexler Field. Zidan Abdella scored off the sophomore’s eighth minute free kick to punch the Raiders’ ticket to the final.
Scotch Plains-Fanwood (20-0-2) advances to host No. 2 Elizabeth, 2-1 winners over No. 6 Westfield, for the North 2, Group 4 championship Thursday afternoon at Wexler Field.
“Really, there’s been no strategy to it; it’s just working as a team,” Linder said of the backline. “We’ve really bonded together very nicely this season. We move to the four backs sometimes — it really helps us protect our leads — and we’ve just been working efficiently over the past couple of games, and that’s what’s got us shutouts.”
It’s only fitting that Linder and the back line fought so hard to protect a lead that Linder himself set up.
The Raiders were awarded a free kick from the opposite end of the midfield line eight minutes in, and — as they typically do — sent Linder to boot it. Linder played a high ball into the box towards the right post, and Zidan Abdella came in on it. Abdella leapt right before the post and pushed it right into the goal to make it 1-0.
Abdella’s fourth goal of the tournament would hold for the remaining 72 minutes and secure the Raiders’ second trip to the sectional final in the last three years.
“I was just trying to serve a good ball in,” Linder said. “I know that every single time I get nice spin on it, ‘Z’ or Rock or anybody in the box can get a nice touch to it. Thankfully, ‘Z’ got a nice touch to it and put it in.”
Once staked to the 1-0 advantage, Scotch Plains-Fanwood was in perfect position to simply defend it. As the game went on, head coach Tom Breznitsky dropped an extra man back on defense to protect the lead, creating a four-man backline. Linder and Ryan Widman played center back, while Michael Dieu and Alex Levy anchored down the wingback positions.
Breznitsky has deployed that strategy before — typically in the bigger games — and Monday was just another example of it working. It allowed just five shots, all of which Danny Coyle saved for the shutout.
“If anything in the world, you want your defense playing well at this time,” Breznitsky said. “All you really need is to get one, defend, and don’t allow the other team to get any. Then you win; simple as that.”
Despite being limited to just those five shots, North Hunterdon did make it scary on a wacky play with just 10 minutes left. The Lions’ Matt Flegg won a tackle in the Raiders’ defensive third, and the ball was struck with such force that it soared about 30 yards towards the goal. However, it sailed just above the crossbar, as the Raiders’ lead remained safe.
North Hunterdon actually did find the back of the net earlier on, but the Lions' 15th minute shot into the goal was negated on an offsides call, preserving the Raiders' one-goal lead.
"Their kids worked their butts off, and they appear to be very well-coached by the way that they play," Breznitsky said of North Hunterdon. "Credit to them — they gave us a tough match.”
“Eventually we wore them down a little bit and they got out of their game," he added. "It would’ve been nice to get a second one, but in the conditions with the wind and rain, we’ll gladly take the W.”
Elizabeth Beats Westfield: What It Means for SPF
Later in the afternoon, Elizabeth did its part and took care of Westfield to set up the sectional final match everybody’s been waiting for. Scotch Plains-Fanwood and Elizabeth — regarded as two of the premier teams in the state — played to a 1-1 draw in their only meeting this year, and will meet with hardware on the line 2:00 p.m. Thursday afternoon at Wexler.
The Raiders’ backline will no doubt face its swiftest challenge of the tournament with Elizabeth’s Youkendly Pacius, Henry Chavez, and Josser Amaya, but SPF’s unit is confident as ever heading in.
“Next game is really gonna show the whole state what we can do, and we can hopefully win and move onto the state semifinal,” Linder said. “We have a big striker [Pacius] to contain, and with the confidence we gained, it’s gonna help us a lot.”