UNION, NJ -- There were instances in the second half of Saturday’s New Jersey state Group 4 girls’ soccer final where it looked as though Scotch Plains-Fanwood was once again going to find magic and rally.
Fresh off a dramatic come-from-behind victory against Montclair in the Group 4 semifinal, Scotch Plains-Fanwood entered the second half down two goals, but nearly erased that deficit on multiple occasions. Unfortunately for the Raiders, luck was not on their side Saturday, as two shots banged off the crossbar in the second half and a host of other opportunities fell just short in the team’s first-ever appearance in a state final.
Hunterdon Central controlled the game early on and never looked back despite those Scotch Plains-Fanwood opportunities, as the Red Devils rolled to a 4-0 victory at Kean University to claim their second state championship in four years. The Red Devils scored twice in each half, as South Carolina-commit Corinna Zullo punched in two goals to lead the attack. The shots-on-goal differential was nearly identical, but the difference Saturday was Hunterdon Central’s luck on finishing balls, whereas the Raiders came up just short on that end.
“Hunterdon Central played very well, and we started picking it up a bit in the second half,” Scotch Plains-Fanwood head coach Kevin Ewing told TAPintoSPF. “But you have to play 80 minutes of soccer, and against a good team, you can’t let them get a lead like that. Unfortunately, we did.”
Hunterdon Central entered this match fresh off of stunning the No. 1-ranked team in the country -- Eastern -- in Wednesday’s semifinals and that momentum carried right into the first half of Saturday’s contest.
Lilliana Gemma, a Navy commit, finished a ball 14 minutes into the game to give Hunterdon Central a 1-0 lead, and the Red Devils never looked back. Zullo then sunk a long-range shot right before the half to give the Red Devils a 2-0 advantage. Zullo would score again in the waning minutes of the game to make it 4-0, as the senior’s two goals sandwiched Maddy Brennan’s rifle from about 30 yards out 10 minutes into the second half.
Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s greatest opportunities to get back in this thing came at the beginning of the second half. Down 2-0 and with a sense of urgency, the Raiders came out with much more pressure and created some dangerous chances early on. Both Leah Klurman and Lizzie Ley had tremendous strikes from far out soar on target, but both shots smacked off the crossbar and deflected away from the goal.
The Raiders also created a few other runs and had some corner kick situations fall just short, as well.
In the moment, it might be painful for the Raiders to dwell on what could have been in those instances, but Ewing was adamant in how proud he is of his team's run through the state tournament, regardless of Saturday’s result.
“I told the kids that I was really proud of them,” Ewing said. “We had an unfortunate result in the county tournament, but the kids just kept working hard and got to the Group 4 final. It wasn’t the result that we wanted today, but we faced a good Hunterdon Central team and that’s what happened.”
Though the Raiders’ luck ran out in the final, it was a pretty special ride to get there.
It began in the first round of the North 2, Group 4 state sectional tournament -- of which the Raiders were seeded second -- with a 9-0 route over Perth Amboy back on October 31. Then a nail-bitting win over Watchung Hills in the quarterfinals set up a fourth match with Westfield in the semifinal, The Raiders extracted revenge over the Blue Devils from that PK loss in the UCT semifinals with a 4-0 statement victory over their archrival to get to the sectional final, in which they took down defending champion Bridgewater-Raritan, 2-0, to bring home some hardware.
Then, after falling behind, 1-0, in the second half against nationally-ranked Montclair in Wednesday’s Group 4 state semifinal, Leah Klurman and Corinne Lyght scored twice in the game’s final 10:16 to punch the Raiders’ ticket to their first-ever state final.
“Just to look at everything they accomplished,” Ewing said of what he told his team. “They finished the season 18-3-2; two of our losses were in overtime and then we had two ties. The kids won a sectional title, got to the Group 4 final, and I just told them to keep your head up. If this is the worst thing that happens in your life, then you’re going to have a pretty good life.”
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