You’ll notice many boys wearing T-shirts bearing the logo “Tradition and Excellence” at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School boys’ soccer practices.
That’s because for Coach Tom Breznitsky and the rest of the Raiders, winning isn’t just a nice surprise, it’s an expectation.
“There are not many programs in the state that have the same expectations that we have of winning literally every game that we enter,” Joe Mortarulo, Breznitsky’s assistant of 17 years, said. “It doesn’t happen, we fall short sometimes, but we always have a certain air about what we believe we can accomplish. Expectations are state championships, conference championships, those are our goals set every year no matter what team, how young, how old we are. And we’ve been fortune enough to attain quite a few of them over the years.”
Breznitsky, a member of the Soccer Coaches Association of New Jersey Hall of Fame, is in his 36th season as head coach of the Raiders and is approaching his 600th career victory (he currently has 597). He has led Scotch Plains-Fanwood to 12 state championship appearances, and seven titles.
“He’s been here a long time, he’s really seen it all,” sophomore Vincenzo Bianco said. “He has the instinct to know what to do and when. Overall he’s a great coach.”
Breznitsky’s explanation for his long-term success is quite simple,
“It’s been hard work over the many years,” he said. “We got to a point where, in 1985, we had some very good players. That team went on in 1987 to win our first state championship. I think the trick to this particular type of success and longevity is that it’s very hard to get the program established, but once you’ve become successful, success breeds success over the years. The tradition that we’ve had, each team that comes in wants to do better than the past year’s team.
“It’s a lot easier, once you start winning, to propagate the program. But it took 10 years. I started in ’75, we never had a losing season, but to get to the point where we were considered one of the top teams in the state [took a while].”
Breznitsky believed his team had the talent and leadership to capture its eighth state championship last year, but injures to key players derailed them.
“Last year was definitely a team that if all the pieces stayed together we should have been able to win another state championship” Breznitsky said. “But injuries take their toll and that’s part of the game. Got to stay healthy, got to be good, got to be lucky, in no particular order.”
The Raiders lost 15 seniors to graduation and entered this season with a very young and unproven group.
“We’re so young we need diapers,” Breznitsky said.
So far, the results have been encouraging as Breznitsky has been pleasantly surprised by the abilities of some of his underclassmen.
“We’ve always had the expression, we don’t rebuild, we just reload,” he said. “This team’s a little bit of a work in progress. Coming into the season I said they’re gonna surprise a lot of people.
“One of the most pleasing things is that some of the kids who had not been on the varsity last year have stepped it up and done a really fine job to the point where a couple of them won themselves a starting position. I thought our depth would be a little bit of a problem, but it’s working out that it’s really not.”
Breznitsky has never shied away from using younger players, but last year’s squad was so talented he didn’t necessarily have room for them. But Breznitsky cites his willingness to play his best players regardless of their age key to his success.
“I believe that a fulcrum for my success has been, I’ve never been afraid to use the best players that are out there, no matter what grade they’re in,” he said. “Some of my very best players have been on the varsity and played since their freshmen year. I believe that is one of the things that has contributed greatly to our success.”
The Raiders are currently 11-8-6, not bad for such a young team especially considering Scotch Plains-Fanwood is a Group Three school playing a predominantly Group Four schedule; 13 of the team’s 17 games this season will be against bigger schools.
It may be tough for Scotch Plains-Fanwood to compete for a state title this year, but with a year of experience under their belts, the Raiders could develop into a force sooner than later.
Breznitsky is planning to take his team to either Costa Rica or Holland this summer, the sixth such trip he’s engineered (three times to Brazil and twice to Holland), in an effort to promote team-building and open his players’ eyes to cultures and soccer around the world.
“Obviously it’s not something you can do every year, because there’s a tremendous amount of fundraising that has to take place to offset the cost for the families,” he said. “You want to look at the group you have and see if that type of experience would be beneficial. You’re going and you’re playing against some of the best competition at the youth level in these countries; [it] gives you an idea what your team is capable of.”
The expectation is always the same: Tradition and Excellence.