UPDATED WITH COMPLETE STORY/QUOTES/PHOTOS
SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD — A tenth-straight county championship may have eluded Scotch Plains-Fanwood back in October, and certainly was painful for the Raiders in the moment. But now, just two weeks later, the Raiders have won something even more prestigious — and find themselves on the doorsteps of history.
After that devastating county semifinal elimination against Westfield in penalty kicks, Scotch Plains-Fanwood regrouped and focused on delivering hardware back to the school by way of the state tournament. On Thursday afternoon they achieved just that.
No. 2-seeded Scotch Plains-Fanwood was in complete control all game and dominated defending champion No. 4 Bridgewater-Raritan, 2-0, in the North 2, Group 4 sectional final at Wexler Field to come away with its first sectional title since 2014. Now just two wins away from claiming the first state title in program history, the Raiders will look to punch their ticket to the title game when they play nationally-ranked Montclair in the Group 4 state semifinals, which will be held at Franklin High School on Tuesday night at 6 p.m.
“They were upset after the counties, and they worked hard. All their hard work just payed off today,” Scotch Plains-Fanwood head coach Kevin Ewing told TAPintoSPF. “The girls have been to a lot of sectional finals before, but they were able to just come out and play hard today. They definitely re-focused on a new goal [after the counties].”
With Thursday’s decisive victory, Scotch Plains-Fanwood has now outscored opponents, 16-0, through the first four rounds of the tournament. That feat has been achieved via a complete team effort from every position, and the Raiders were once again sensational in all aspects of the game.
After completely dominating the run of play in the first half, Sarah Dill broke a scoreless deadlock in the 38th minute, when she headed in a corner kick booted by Rachel Schoss — Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s fifth corner of the half. That was all the Raiders would need, but added insurance anyway eight minutes out of halftime when Leah Klurman finished a ball played by Corinne Lyght on a crafty run deep in the Raiders’ offensive third.
Keeper Maya Kessler was perfect between the pipes while the Raiders backline did an excellent job containing a potent Bridgewater-Raritan attack.
“I’m just so proud of everyone — we deserve it,” Dill said. “We’ve worked hard for like four months now. We deserved a title and we got it, and we’re going to keep going.”
It's no secret that Scotch Plains-Fanwood has one of the most talented teams in the state, and the Raiders now have a title to show for it. But while the talent is there, Scotch Plains-Fanwood feels one of the real keys to its success has been its close-knit environment in which girls put aside personal interests in order to win for each other.
“The biggest thing is that we’re all best friends, and we play for each other,” Klurman said. “I don’t think I’ve been on a team that I’ve been closer with than these girls. We just all love each other and play for each other.”
Scotch Plains-Fanwood could not have started out any hotter and wasted little time creating opportunities in the first half. Whether it were threatening runs down the flanks or creating corner kick and set piece opportunities, the Raiders knew it was only a matter of time before they put one in.
That time came in the 38th minute.
On their fifth corner of the game, Schoss lined up at the left flag along the west-facing endline and sent a booming ball into the box. There to receive it in the box was Dill, who headed it perfectly to the blue twine to break the ice and give the Raiders a lead they'd never relinquish.
“We had so many corners in the first half, and I just knew that we were going to get on one of them,” Dill said. “It came in and I saw one of the defenders coming out at me. I got on it, it hit me right in the face, and when I opened my eyes, it was right in the back of the net. It’s just the most amazing experience.”
All of that momentum carried into the second half, and the Raiders knew they had to keep up the pace against a tested Bridgewater-Raritan squad that has rallied from similar deficits before in this tournament.
But Scotch Plains-Fanwood made sure that would not be the case and put in some insurance in the 48th minute.
Lyght gained possession of a ball and started a run down the right flank, eventually bringing it deep into the Raiders' offensive third. Klurman came running in from the midfield and got inside the 18-box, where Lyght played a pass to the sophomore for an easy tap-in goal to make it 2-0.
"I just knew I had to be there to touch it in the goal, and she just sent it back perfectly," Klurman said. "I just had to touch it."
"They’re a really talented team and I’ve played with a lot of their girls on my club, and they’re super talented, so we knew we had to come out as strong as we could," the sophomore added. "Just making a lot of runs through the outside [allowed for offensive success], because our outside mids are super fast and I think they can beat anyone in the state, honestly."
The Raiders' control of the game Tuesday should not come as a surprise when considering how well they've played once the tournament began last Monday. But to control the run of play so profusely against a premier Bridgewater-Raritan program is certainly a major statement made by the Raiders, who were fully prepared.
"Bridgewater is excellent; they’re well-coached, have some great players, and are a classy team," Ewing said. "Bridgewater definitely came out a little tentative, and we weren’t as hungry as we probably should’ve been in the first half. We told them at halftime to be ready because Bridgewater is going to come back."
It is worth noting that Bridgewater-Raritan had played a significant role in preventing the Raiders from winning the section since 2014. The Panthers knocked Scotch Plains-Fanwood out of the state tournament in the sectional semifinals both last season and in 2015. The last time the Raiders were in a sectional final before Thursday came against another Somerset County foe -- Ridge -- and resulted in a penalty kick defeat in 2016, when this season's senior class were freshmen.
But Scotch Plains-Fanwood has made it clear from the get-go this tournament that this year is different, and will look to continue its revenge tour of sorts against Montclair, which upended its state championship dreams during that 2014 Group 4 semifinal.
"It’s huge," Klurman said. "Now we have so much momentum moving forward, and I’m excited to see what we can do next. I think we can win it all."
TAPintoSPF.net is Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s only free daily local news source. Sign up for our free daily eNewsletter and “Like” us on Facebook and twitter @SPF_TAP. Download the free TAPinto App for iPhone or Android.