SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD — Entering the season as the No. 42-ranked team in the U.S., the Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School girls’ soccer team looks primed to make a run at its first state championship, while chasing its ninth consecutive Union County title in what should be an exciting 2017 season. 

Despite losing the core of last year’s sectional finalist team to graduation, the Raiders return a large number of girls back to the pitch. Experience should give the Raiders an edge above some of the other top teams in Group 4 — the group which SP-F, one New Jersey’s most successful programs, has come oh-so-close to winning countless times in the past. It’s no secret that experience is a major key to success, and an advantage the Raiders carry which can help them attain new heights.

“It’s really important [to have starters return] because they know how to play, they know what it takes to get to the big games, and they know how to win big games,” said head coach Kevin Ewing, who has coached Scotch Plains-Fanwood for 15 years.

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One area where starters return is the defense. Traditionally priding itself on stopping other teams from executing scoring opportunities, Scotch Plains-Fanwood has always boasted strong units on defense, and this year is no different. The Lady Raiders return every starter from last year’s back end, which limited opponents to just eight goals all season and was regarded as one of the best defenses in the state. 

Holding down the back line this fall will be Ashley Vincent, Sabrina DiLollo, Gabrielle Aloe and Kylie Beirne, all of whom saw significant starting time while shutting down some of the most powerful offenses the state had to offer in 2016. 

“We try to key on our defense, year in and year out. A point of attention for us is to make sure that we are very good defensively, so we can work through our defense to create our offense,” Ewing said.

Most of the Scotch Plains’ leadership comes from its defense. Captains for this year’s team will be Ashley Vincent and Taylor Diggs, both of whom are defensive-minded players. Vincent has played on the defense since freshman year; Diggs also played defense as a freshman on varsity and stayed in the back until transitioning to more of a midfielder in 2016. 

“Our two captains, Ashley Vincent and Taylor Diggs, definitely are doing a great job leading; they all are in leadership roles,” said Ewing. “And to be honest, all of the seniors are doing a good job leading.”

Offensively, the Raiders admittedly take a bit of a hit. They graduated powerful scorers Christina Rodgers, Sophie Brause and Alyssa DiFrancesco, all of whom are playing Division 1 soccer this fall and combined for a total of 24 goals scored in the '16 campaign. 

But in Scotch Plains, the trademark is: “Reload, not rebuild.” 

Helping the reload is arguably the Raiders’ strongest offensive asset, striker Kerri McNeely. She was the team’s leading scorer last season, netting 18 goals and chipping in eight assists, and the sky is the limit for the senior this year. She is regarded as one of the state’s top returning goal scorers and sits high amongst the list of players to watch.

“She’s fast, she’s good with the ball, and she knows how to finish,” Ewing said. “She’s just a solid player; it’s good to have someone like that up top.”

While McNeely figures to lead an always-potent Raider offense, she will be accompanied by a deep unit on the front line. Fellow seniors Erika Muskus, who found the back of the net eight times last year and owns 19 career goals, Gina Fahrenholz and Danielle Mrozek will all be dangerous goal-scoring threats for the Raiders. Freshman Corrine Lyght will bring speed and probably some goals up top. Additionally, Isabella Corsaro and Amanda Logie, both seniors, will be invaluable to SP-F’s offensive depth. 

Depth is something that the Raiders have always thrived on, and will again. Aside from the starting 11, the Raiders will have a uncommonly stacked bench. From viable goal scorers to shutdown defenders, the Raiders’ bench will be amongst the best in the area. 

“We’re definitely going to have a deep bench. From freshmen to seniors will be on the bench, and freshmen to seniors will be able to help out our team,” Ewing said. “There’s a whole lot of competition.”

Another area with competition is the goalkeeper position. The graduation of Andrea Leitner — one of the best goalies in program history with 84 saves a year ago — opened up a vacancy between the posts. Maya Kessler, Leitner’s backup in 2016, will assume the starting spot as a sophomore. Kessler did see action last year and recorded 11 saves.

Ewing on his starting keeper: “Maya Kessler is a very good goalie. We need her to be a little more vocal, but she’ll get there. It’s going to come for her.”

Kessler and her teammates have prepared for the challenging regular season schedule they’ll play with demanding-level scrimmage matches. In scrimmages this August into September, SP-F played Northern Highlands, Ridge and Montclair — all heavy presences on the New Jersey girls’ soccer landscape. 

“There’s a lot of work in the preseason. We set up a good scrimmage schedule,” said Ewing. “We tell the kids: ‘Make practice like game-like situations, and that’s how we’re going to improve'.”

The Raiders will hope the preseason work pays off beginning Opening Day, Sept. 7 at home against Morristown. Other season games to look forward to include a pair of matches against major rival Westfield with the home end of the rivalry on Sept. 9; hosting defending state champion Hunterdon Central on Oct. 12; and a Union County Championship re-match with Oak Knoll, which comes to Wexler Field on Oct. 19. 

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