“I’ve been thinking about it since we beat Plainfield last week and found out that we were playing Westfield, and it’s been on my mind since then,” said Raiders senior midfielder Owen Murphy. “I knew how the game was going to be. It was going to be close — it wasn’t going to be a 4-0 game. It was going to be close; most likely a 1-0 game.”
The senior captain’s expectations were on cue, as the Raiders and Blue Devils interlocked in yet another tight match in their third meeting of the season. However, it was Scotch Plains-Fanwood that was able to finish when it mattered most.
Nick Tittanegro slotted a bouncing ball off a corner sent from Owen Murphy in the 51st minute to give No. 2-seeded Scotch Plains-Fanwood the lone goal needed to defeat No. 3 Westfield, 1-0, Tuesday afternoon in the North 2, Group 4 state sectional tournament semifinals at Wexler Field. Keeper Danny Coyle was perfect in goal to protect the lead, as the Raiders have now shutout every opponent through the first three rounds of the tournament.
“It always feels good to beat this team; to send them home feels even better; it’s the last time we’re playing them, so that’s even sweeter,” Murphy told TAPintoSPF. “This game really meant a lot. Us seniors knew that this could’ve been our last 80 minutes of soccer. We were ready to come out. We knew who we had.”
Just like Murphy and the Raiders knew exactly who they had in Westfield, they knew what they had in county foe Plainfield during the quarterfinals, and know their opponents in the final even better. The Raiders advance to take on top-seeded and defending champion Elizabeth in the sectional final Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. in what will be the two rivals’ fourth meeting this year (Elizabeth has won all three matches so far).
Elizabeth also defeated the Scotch Plains-Fanwood in last year’s sectional final, and the Raiders have not beaten the Minutemen since September of 2016, a streak that is now nine games long. There would be not better time to end that streak than Friday afternoon, and with the Raiders peaking at the right time, they will have plenty of confidence going into that grudge match at Williams Field.
“This is the time you want to peak,” said Scotch Plains-Fanwood head coach Tom Breznitsky. “You don’t want to peak earlier and go down, and have to peak again. In all my years, the majority of teams are high, then hit a low, then hit a high, and have to hit that high at the best part. But even the games in the county tournament, the kids played well. It’s a game and anything can happen.”
In a Scotch Plains-Fanwood vs. Westfield game, it’s often the little things that make all the difference on the scoreboard. It comes down to who is able to finish their opportunity, and just barely over a minute out of halftime on Tuesday, it was the Raiders who capitalized on one of theirs.
Murphy booted a corner kick from the right flag on the east-facing goal, and sent a great ball over the box to the back post. After a Westfield defender was unable to get a foot on it, the ball took a bounce as Tittanegro and Eli Wolman converged on it. Tittanegro got his foot on it first, slotted it, and soon found himself at the post of the fence along with his teammates, celebrating with Raider Nation.
“Owen had taken the last three corners and they all went back post,” Tittanegro said. “There was nobody crashing, so I decided that I was gonna wait for it at the back post and wait for the ball to drop. Luckily the defender whiffed on the ball and I was able to take advantage and tap it in.”
Scotch Plains-Fanwood knew just how important it was to finish their opportunities Tuesday, and were able to do exactly that on the play.
“You could have your best game and have 30 shots while the other team only has five, but if they get one in and they don’t, they’re the winners,” Murphy said. “We have to capitalize on our chances and Nick did a great job of that on the goal. I whipped it in, he anticipated the second ball coming from the defender, the defender missed the ball, and he got his foot on it at the back post. Those little chances are the ones that push you the farthest way.”
Tittanegro is a talented junior who has fought for playing time at a host of positions all season in a fluid Raiders’ lineup. On Tuesday, a formational adjustment saw Tittanegro enter the starting lineup as a holding back, helping the Raiders shut down a potent Westfield offense.
But in the 51st minute, Tittanegro came up for the corner and did not disappoint.
“We made an adjustment with the way we were playing slightly, and he rose to the occasion,” Breznitsky said. “He did a great job. He’s played in a couple of variety of positions. I think this is his home, as a holding back.”
Westfield came out of the gate strong and had a couple of dangerous shots in the first half. But with Tittanegro helping in front of the Joey Linder-led backline, the Raiders were able to fend off those runs and tire out the Westfield attack.
That led to the Raiders gaining momentum and created chances in their offensive third, which eventually created the corner kick opportunity that they’d score on.
“I think we were able to hold them,” Tittanegro said. “They were getting frustrated because they were just trying to play the balls over the top, and we were able to stay with them for the first half. I think that frustrated them and they eventually got tired, and we were able to take advantage of that and switch off, then took advantage of our chances.”
“Both teams know each other well at this point,” said Westfield head coach Eric Shaw. “It comes down to mistakes. In a championship game, you've got to play clean. You can't make mistakes."
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