SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD — Before each season, Scotch Plains-Fanwood always sets forth three goals. The first is to win its conference, then the Union County Tournament, and ultimately, Group 4.
The Raiders have steamrolled their way towards the first goal this fall, and despite not running the table in doing so, still achieved it on Tuesday.
Scotch Plains-Fanwood (15-0-1) clinched the 28th conference championship title in program history with its 1-1 draw against second-place Elizabeth (11-1-2) Tuesday afternoon at Wexler Field. The game went only one overtime before being called by darkness, as Rock Valian’s 26th minute goal was equalized by Elizabeth’s Josser Amaya’s score with 14 minutes left in regulation.
"We continue to play exceptionally well, and our possession game is what allows us to play well," Scotch Plains-Fanwood head coach Tom Breznitsky said. "What is disappointing about the thing is that we had an opportunity to get the second goal and put it away, and we didn't. It's not like Elizabeth is this garbage team... [But] it’s difficult and not that important to go undefeated [for the season]."
Also part of what’s frustrating has to be how Scotch Plains-Fanwood – suffering its first non-win of 2018 – was fouled an incomprehensible 42 times, yet did not get a penalty kick.
But regardless of the officiating, it looked as though Scotch Plains-Fanwood was going to continue its flirtation with perfection this season. Valian’s early goal seemed to be enough as the Raiders’ back line was stymieing Elizabeth’s potent attack and lethal weapon of striker Youkendly Pacious.
With just 14 minutes separating the Raiders from a perfect record, though, Elizabeth finally broke through. Pacious unleashed a shot from 25 out that hit the crossbar and bounced back into the box. There to recover was Amaya, who finished it passed a diving Danny Coyle to equalize.
“At first, I saw the ball coming to me, and I got nervous a little,” Amaya said. “I’ve been playing varsity for three years, and I never scored on them. It feels great.”
On the play, Pacious' move to the goal created a little miscommunication on the Raiders' backline. That allowed Amaya to be open in the box and receive the rebound ahead of various defenders.
"He got a good shot on Danny, it rebounded, and I thought he was offsides, but the side ref didn't see it that way," Linder, who did a great job of defending Pacius for 90 minutes, said of the play. "They have a very technical team, and [Pacius] is a very technical, big player. I've defended players like that in the past and treated it like that."
That goal took away a lead that the Raiders jumped out to on Valian’s nifty finish 40 minutes earlier.
Continuing the Raiders’ trend of scoring early in games, Valian struck in the 26th minute. As the Raiders controlled the ball in their offensive zone, Zidan Abdella was on the left side of the six and played short ball to Valian at the nearby left post. Valian soon found himself celebrating with Raider Nation after one-time chipping the pass by Elizabeth keeper Stephen Valencia.
“I definitely thought we were going to put a few more in and I thought the game was kind of over at that point, even though we only had one,” Valian said. “I’m just glad we didn’t lose, and next time we play them, we'll know exactly how they play."
While “next time” is uncertain at this point, one thing is for sure: The Raiders are Union County Conference Watchung Division champs. Elizabeth has a loss and two ties, while the Raiders remain undefeated with the tie. Even if both teams make up the postponed September 25 game and Elizabeth wins, the Raiders still have the advantage, as they have one less tie than the Minutemen.
Of course, chances are high both teams will meet at Kean University in two weeks for the county tournament title, too. The No.2-seeded Raiders need to get by No. 3 Westfield in the semifinal Saturday first, though, while top-seeded Elizabeth plays No. 4 Union.
"It's awesome, it's great," Valian said of winning the conference. "I don't want to lose or tie anymore games obviously, and we just want to keep getting better as a team."