SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD — For a No. 2 seed like Scotch Plains-Fanwood, playing a perennial powerhouse such as Watchung Hills in only the second round of the state tournament is always a scary draw.
Watchung Hills was only the No. 7 seed in this year’s North 2, Group 4 state tournament, but the Warriors are always one of the state’s premier squads and present a challenge every year. However, Scotch Plains-Fanwood was able to grind out a 1-0 victory over the Warriors Friday afternoon at Wexler Field, and will now have a chance to avenge a County tournament semifinal loss against Westfield in the state semis Tuesday afternoon against the No. 3 Blue Devils at home.
Faith Price scored the game’s lone goal, finishing a loose ball in the box in the 36th minute to give the Raiders the only margin of lead they’d need. The back line, and especially goalkeeper Maya Kessler — who came up with a pair of big-time saves in the game — handled the rest, fending off a dangerous Warrior attack on a blustery November afternoon.
“I think today was really good for us,” Kessler said. “There are still a few more goal-scoring opportunities that we have to take advantage of, but Faith getting that really nice goal and having a strong defensive game is good for our confidence.”
In many senses, Kessler saved the game for the Raiders. In the first half, the senior leaped high to punch away a dangerous shot, sending it off the crossbar as the defense was able to clear it on the rebound. Then late in the second half, Kessler dove right on a Watchung Hills cross attempt to smother a shot just in front of the post.
“I think that first ball came down to all my training,” Kessler said. “This season, that’s been something I’ve really worked on, because I’ve had trouble judging those kinds of ball in the past. That was good for me to be able to see all that hard work pay off and judge that ball, especially on a windy day like this... I had an open palm, had my fingers on it, and hit it up into the crossbar. The ball popped out, and we were able to clear it. It was a great heads-up play by my defenders too, because they were able to get the ball out and not let the rebound come back at us."
“That one on the second half was just reflexes,” she added. “The cross came in, girl was in good position, but I was just able to set my feet and just get a hand on it, and that was all I needed.”
With Kessler in goal and a stout back line — led by Ashley DeFrancesco, Leah Klurman, and Gabby Aloe — the Raiders were confident in their ability to hold off the potent Watchung Hills offense. However, Watchung Hills' defense is pretty good, too, having allowed an average of just over a goal-per-game this season entering Friday's match. But when the Raiders were presented with a golden scoring chance in the 36th minute, they made sure not to miss it.
Kat Zikas played a great cross into the box, and initially the ball was stopped by the Warriors' keeper. But as Price came and crashed the box, the ball popped out. Price was there to subtly tap it into the goal, giving the Raiders the 1-0 lead that they'd need to win with.
“Kat, our left outside defender, she had a perfect diagonal cross into the box,” Price said. “[The goalkeeper] dropped the ball and I was scarred that I was offsides, but I realized I wasn’t. All I had to do was hit it in.”
All things considered, this was a great win for Scotch Plains-Fanwood over a very tough team that is never easy to defeat come postseason time.
"They’re really good and well-coached," said Raiders head coach Kevin Ewing. "They have some really good players. The kids moved the ball well. We had a lot of chances and we did some good things on defense, too."
The task likely won't get any easier Tuesday with Westfield -- 2-0 winners over No. 11 Piscataway -- but the Raiders are firing on all cylinders right now and there is no team in the state that they are more familiar with, as this will be their fourth meeting this season with the Blue Devils.
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