SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD -- This season couldn’t be starting any better for Scotch Plains-Fanwood, now 6-0. The Raiders’ have regained their winning ways, rhythmic offensive dominance, and class of Union County status.
And as Thomas Rodriguez showed Thursday, they have their swagger back, too.
Rodriguez scored a goal and popped a cartwheel celebration -- a la John Murphy -- then dropped an assist to Stevie Feinman-Riordan while leading Scotch Plains-Fanwood past divisional foe Cranford, 3-0, in dominant fashion Thursday afternoon at Wexler Field. Zidan Abdella scored the game’s first goal, which gave a lead that stood, as goalkeeper Eric Refinski posted a shutout in his first varsity start.
“The competition of some of these teams that we played in the first six, I’ll be perfectly honest, are nowhere near up to our level,” Raiders head coach Tom Breznitsky said.
After Abdella broke a scoreless deadlock with a crafty left-footed goal from 18 yards out in the 29th minute, Rodriguez came off the bench put on a show.
Less than a minute out of halftime, Rodriguez was set up from Gerardo Salgado and finished a shot across the box to the upper left corner, giving the Raiders a 2-0 lead. He celebrated with a cartwheel, and while many see it as a flashy celebration, it symbolizes more than that. The Raiders have their flair back, and players like Rodriguez are why.
Nearly 40 minutes later, Rodriguez found himself another prime chance to score after shifting a Cranford defender inside the box on a breakaway and had an open shot from the left corner. But instead of shooting, he sent a beautiful cross to Stevie Feinman-Riordan, who redirected it into an empty net for his first goal of the season.
Rodriguez now has three goals and two assists, and was named Joint Motion Physical Therapy Athlete of the Week Wednesday.
“It’s Stevie’s first time coming off the bench all season, and I’m really glad I got him that goal, because I hope it gives him an extra boost to really go out there and play better,” Rodriguez said. “[My teammates] are always pushing me to do better, and without all of us working hard together, I don’t think I would’ve played as well as I did.”
Along with Rodriguez up top sits veteran Zidan Abdella, who had scored in three consecutive games entering Tuesday. 29 minutes in, that streak extended to four. Abdella severed a 0-0 tie on a set up from Michael Ferrara, and did so in style. His initial shot was blocked, but he regathered it and got around the defender, switched to his non-dominant left foot, and sent a laser to the back of the net.
Abdella was already a potent scorer coming into the season, having led the team with nine goals last year. But now, with the ability to strike from both feet, he can be lethal. The senior is now three goals away from matching last year’s total (9) less than a third into the season.
“Over the summer, I spent a lot of time coming up to the pitch and working on my left foot,” Abdella said. “It’s just kind of my weakness, and it’s paying off because it’s improved a lot.”
That goal was all the Raiders would need, as their back line and defensive-minded midfield stymied the Cougars. Defenders Joey Linder, Alex Levy, and Antonio Lomonte helped limit Cranford to just two shots in the game. Meanwhile, players such as Owen Murphy and the Ferraras constantly won balls in the midfield.
Refinski needed to save just one shot in his first ever varsity start and shutout.
“Refinski could play goalkeeper for 75 percent of the high school teams in the state,” Breznitsky said. “But when you speak of the back line, it’s not just the back line -- we play the two Ferraras, Owen, and a bunch of different guys on the left… and right wings. But the three guys that have been playing the center back have been great all year.”