SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ – For the first time in the program’s existence, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood varsity ice hockey team finished with a winning regular season record, and now has the opportunity to put the icing on the cake with a win in the Essex County Conference Finals on Saturday, Feb. 20.
This will be the first season a team is awarded the Kelly-McMullen Cup, as teams were divided into Liberty and American divisions prior to the 2015-16 season. The second-seeded Raiders will face off with newly formed rivals West Essex, who earned the top seed although both teams finished with 11-10 records.
“In the beginning of the season, since we’re new to Essex County, I didn’t have a background knowledge about all the teams, but after getting to play all of the teams I kind of foreshadowed one of the teams in the final may be us or West Essex. We’re really comparable teams.” Raiders’ head coach Matt Gunther said.
The Raiders fell to the Knights 3-1 in their season opener, but flipped the script in the second matchup, scoring four unanswered goals to win 5-3.
“I think we’re starting to build a rivalry between them,” Gunther said. “The first game we lost we were down a couple of our good players, then when we won they were missing a few of their top players. If we both have full rosters, it’s going to be up in the air.”
The Raiders will look to their two point leaders in Nick Cassara and Jared Figueroa to get the team on the board, but need an equally strong defensive effort according to Gunther.
“Initially we had [Cassara and Figueroa] working together. They are two completely opposite players so we separated them. The couple of studs on our team don’t shine individually, but instead when they work as an entire unit,” Gunther said. “We kind of know who to keep our eye on and know who the better players are and it comes down to shutting down their offense. We need to do the best we can to counteract their attack.”
Figueroa, a junior, is already nearing the 100-point career mark and may reach the rare milestone before his senior year. Gunther admits the hockey team has set a precedent in the community, showing younger players that a winning team exists at the high school level.
“It’s quite an achievement not only as a coach, but for the association. We haven’t been able to call ourselves championship contenders till this moment, so we’ve put ourselves in an opportunity to do so,” Gunther said.
Scotch Plains-Fanwood and West Essex will play on Saturday, Feb. 20 at Codey Arena in West Orange. The game is scheduled for 3:45 p.m.