SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- To say that the 2020 boys soccer season was unique would be an understatement.
For starters, it marked the first time in almost five decades that Tom Breznitsky was not coaching on the sidelines. Fifteen student athletes from the 2019 team graduated. It was a new team with a new coaching staff. Then, the pandemic wrecked havoc on pre-season preparation, and the team had to postpone the start of its season when a player tested positive for COVID-19. With little time for practice, the team showed its rust and dropped its first two games of the season against Union and Elizabeth without scoring a goal.
"The first time we met we talked about character, the culture, and for the team to be successful, we needed to work together in a positive and professional manner," explained first-year coach Alex Passucci in an exclusive interview with TAPintoSPF. "It's easier said than done with a new team and coaching staff, but they came together, worked hard, showed good character, and demonstrated great teamwork."
Passucci said that with all the challenges his team faced due to COVID-19, he was not sure what to expect for the 2020 season. As the staff and players learned more about each other as the season went on, their expectations rose.
The team took a home-and-away series from Summit, winning 5-2 at home on Oct. 17 and 2-1 on the road on Oct. 20. The Raiders played to a scoreless tie against Elizabeth on the road on Oct. 22 and then lost a hard-fought game against Bergen Catholic, 3-1, on Oct. 27. After a 1-1 tie at Plainfield on Halloween, the Raiders began to play some scary good soccer.
They embarrassed Plainfield, 8-0, in the Union County Tournament, quarterfinals and then turned the tide on Elizabeth by coming out on top of the defending champions, 3-2, in a thrilling double OT game in the tournament's semifinal round. There would be no opportunity to claim the title this year as the finals were canceled due to COVID outbreaks.
Following a 1-0 regular season win vs. Oratory on Nov. 12, the Raiders beat New Brunswick, 1-0, in the NJSIAA Central East F, Group 4 quarterfinals. Their season ended on Thursday, Nov. 19 with a 3-1 loss at Monroe in the semifinal matchup.
"I told them after the loss to Monroe that they had nothing to be ashamed of, and to walk out of there with their heads held high." Passucci explained. "Under the circumstances, I absolutely consider this season a success. The coaching staff is very proud of them."
Passucci said that after losing their first two games, the team was down but they learned a lot from those games.
"I believe that those two losses made us stronger. Those experiences against quality opponents help you become a better soccer player. We told them that the only way we were going to get better was to stay positive and continue to work hard and that the road to success is very rarely a smooth ride," Passucci said. "I give them a lot of credit. They never gave up and came every day into our training sessions with a good mentality and consistently took small steps forward."
Scotch Plains-Fanwood athletic director Ryan Miller called the season a success.
"It's never easy replacing a coach who led a team for 45 years," Miller said. "COVID disrupted preparation in the summer and forced the cancelation of games at the beginning of the season, so we started slow. But we qualified for the finals in the County tournament -- and had a good shot of winning it -- and then made it to the semifinal round in states."
"Alex has changed the culture of the program, and we've got a bright future ahead," Miller said.
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