CLARK, NJ — After playing what it felt like was its best game of the season despite a loss Tuesday night in a regular season tune-up against Elizabeth, Scotch Plains-Fanwood was confident that it had what it took to duplicate that effort and defeat the Minutemen when it mattered in the Union County semifinals five nights later.
The Raiders were right. They did duplicate that effort, and turned in another solid performance against an elite Elizabeth team. Unfortunately for Scotch Plains-Fanwood, that again meant another loss to a team that they have not beaten since 2016.
Jacoby Calvo scored the game-winning golden goal with 1:27 remaining in the second overtime on a feed from Mathew Giraldo, who scored twice in the first half, as No. 1 seed Elizabeth advanced to the Union County final with a 3-2 victory over No. Scotch Plains-Fanwood Saturday night at Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark.
Owen Murphy and Ryan Widman each scored for the Raiders, who by all accounts out-played Elizabeth for most of the game — but were unable to come up with the decisive goal to show for it.
“This is what we all know: these games are always battles,” said Elizabeth head coach Jacques Gonzales, whose team will play Summit for the Union County title next weekend. “They [Scotch Plains] are one of the best teams in the state, and it doesn’t matter if their record doesn’t reflect that. We know the quality of players and the quality of a program that they are. But you know what? We have our goals set up from the beginning of the season. It doesn’t matter who’s in front of us. We still have to go on and compete and do our best.”
A decisive penalty kick round was looking like a serious possibility as both teams entered the 98th minute entrenched in a 2-2 deadlock. But that’s when things picked up and decided the game.
The game-ending sequence first got moving in Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s offensive third with about three minutes remaining in the second overtime, when Dean Kirian was making something happen deep down the left corner near the endline. However, a swarm of Elizabeth defenders were able to take over possession after a brutal collision near the sideline about 20 yards out from the goal.
Elizabeth then advanced the ball downfield and deep into the Raiders’ defensive third. Giraldo — who, with crafty moves and blazing speed, showed Saturday why he is one of the best players in the state — had possession when he played a great ball over to Calvo, who finished it with just 1:27 remaining before the game would go into penalty kicks.
“I saw him [Giraldo] running and he saw me open,” said Calvo. “When I saw that ball come to me, I had the feeling that it was going in. For a split second, I thought the goal keeper was going to reach it, but when I saw it go, I didn’t know what to do. I just went crazy.”
After allowing two goals early in the first half, Scotch Plains-Fanwood had to battle all night, but the Raiders did more than just fight — they actually out-played Elizabeth significantly from the minute the second half started, all the way up until Calvo’s goal.
Trailing, 2-1, at halftime, Scotch Plains-Fanwood made a few adjustments at the break and instantly came out a changed team. Just 11 seconds into the second half, Ryan Widman came through with a goal to tie up the score at 2-2, which is where it would remain for the ensuing 59 minutes.
The Raiders continued applying heavy pressure on Elizabeth’s defense, tightened things up defensively to neutralize a lethal Minutemen attack, and seemed to control possession for most of the final 60 minutes.
“They were putting more pressure on our defense, cutting our passes off; they wanted it more than us,” Calvo said. “They’re a very good team. We know what they’re capable of doing, and we know what we’re capable of doing. We know that just because we beat them twice, it doesn’t mean anything. We’ve got to play them as hard as we can.”
Elizabeth also played the final 10 minutes of OT time without starting keeper Stephen Valencia, who exited after appearing to have suffered a serious leg injury while making a save with 1:36 left in the first OT. His younger brother, Dylan, came on and rose to the challenge, thwarting multiple Raider opportunities down the stretch.
Elizabeth's keeper situation would have been much more serious dynamic had the game gone into penalty kicks, but nonetheless was a big break for the Minutemen.
"I never panicked, because Dylan is as good as Steven is, and that’s why we felt comfortable with Dylan in goal," Gonzales said. "The team always kept its composure. We never panicked; the kids just continued to play.
Despite the Raiders’ exceptional play in the second half and overtime, Elizabeth came out firing early and took the momentum during the first half.
Giraldo scored a spectacular unassisted goal seven minutes into the game to make it 1-0 on a strike near the goal line after he came fast down the right flank. Scotch Plains-Fanwood would get even three minutes later, when Owen Murphy converted a penalty kick after Chris Vinci was fouled hard in the box to warrant the PK.
However, Elizabeth came right back five minutes later, as Giraldo again scored, this time on a feed from Emil Caballero, to give the Minutemen a 2-1 advantage in the 15th.
“Most of the time, that’s the key for us — to be up on the scoreboard early,” Gonzales said. “We tend to play a little better when we’re up on the score. But we had a very good team in front of us that never gives up."
The Raiders' JV advanced to the Union County final, winning 3-0 over Summit to advance to the championship against Westfield this week. Freshman Dylan Fei had two goals, and Kieran Adams also scored off a free kick in the first half. Sean Kennedy posted a shutout in goal for the Raiders.