ELIZABETH, NJ — This may have been a loss on the scoreboard, but it was as a big of a moral victory as there can be for Scotch Plains-Fanwood. 

Sure, the Raiders would’ve preferred to be on the other end of a 2-1 decision Tuesday night against powerhouse Elizabeth at Williams Field. But Scotch Plains-Fanwood left the pitch beaming with confidence, believing that it had played its best game of the year. With a county semifinal matchup against this same Elizabeth team — which Scotch Plains-Fanwood has beaten just once in the last four years — looming on Saturday night, that confidence gained Tuesday may prove to be more valuable than what the scoreboard reads in a regular season match.

Dean Kirian’s surge continued, as he scored his fourth goal in three matches in the 74th minute to cut Elizabeth’s lead to 2-1. Though it was too little, too late for the Raiders, who allowed two goals in the first half, that one strike off the foot of Kirian gave the entire team confidence that Elizabeth is beatable, and a team that the Raiders can conquer in the Union County Tournament (UCT) semifinals. 

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That game will kick off at 8:00 p.m. at Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark. The Raiders are vying for their first title and trip to the finals since 2015. 

“I think even though we lost, it was great, because it showed us that they are very beatable,” said Kirian, this week’s Joint Motion Physical Therapy Athlete of the Week. “We needed that right before Saturday, because if we would’ve lost 2-0 on a shutout, that would be a big loss that we couldn’t score. That last goal really helped us understand that we can beat them, and we’ve just got to come out hot in the first half and not concede a goal.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kirian once again came through for the Raiders. After scoring the game-winner in the first round of the UCT last Saturday against Oratory, he came out on Monday and scored two more goals in an eventual 4-3 loss to Piscataway. He stayed red-hot Tuesday, extending that streak in the 74th.

Chris Vinci played a ball to Kirian inside the 18-box, and as the keeper was coming out to try and stop it, Kirian played a shot on goal with his left foot. The ball found net and cut the deficit in half, but despite a hurry-up approach, the Raiders would be unable to equalize. 

Kirian now has five goals total on the season. 

“I saw Levy in the midfield with the ball and saw that two of the centerbacks had a little gap between them, so I split them,” Kirian said. “Levy played the ball through, and I just found a way with the left foot.”

Kirian’s goal may have been the highlight, but this was a night full of positives and bright spots for the Raiders. 

Danny Coyle (13 saves) playing one of his best games of the season in goal, the play of Vinny Milano and Vinci making big plays in the midfield and offensive third, and Jason Trivisonno stepping up big on the backline are all glaring positives that the Raiders and head coach Tom Breznitsky will take away from this match. Formational tweaks also seemed to pay some dividends, as the Raiders feel they have found the formula 

The Minutemen scored twice within a nine-minute span late in the first half on goals from Emiliano Caballero and Matthew Giraldo, who assisted on Caballero’s goal. Both goals were nearly impossible to defend — Caballero’s on an acrobatic and improbable shot, and Giraldo’s off a ricochet in the box. Aside from those two moments, Scotch Plains-Fanwood played nearly perfectly for the remainder.

“Against a team like them — they’re a very good team — I think that we played perhaps the best game that we’ve played this year,” said Breznitsky. “I’m really very proud of the guys. They worked their butts off. We changed a couple things up, and it seemed to work for us.”

“We sent a message out there,” he added, “that you’re not going to walk all over us.”

Elizabeth has been the one thorn in Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s side over the recent past, a history that extended into this season when the Minutemen took a decisive 2-0 decision at Wexler Field on September 19. That game was the two teams’ first meeting since Elizabeth defeated Scotch Plains-Fanwood for the North 2, Group 4 sectional title last Novemeber. But while Raiders have not beaten the Minutemen since September 15, 2016 — head coach Tom Breznitsky’s 700th career victory — the team is feeling very confident in its ability to end that six-game drought when it matters most on Saturday. 

“I’m hyped; I’m ready to play and beat them,” Kirian said. “We’ve only won one game in four years against them, and we’re about to make it two on Saturday.”

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