For the Union Farmers this is unchartered territory.
For their opponent – the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Raiders – the total opposite can be said.
Scotch Plains will be playing in its 10th consecutive championship game.
Union is preparing to make its debut in the final.
Despite that disparity, these teams know each other well, having faced one another twice a season, including a battle in last year’s semifinals that went right down to the wire.
This Sunday’s 34th annual girls’ soccer Union County Tournament championship game between third-seeded Union and top-seeded and four-time defending champion Scotch Plains has the makings of a team very hungry for its first championship – Union – vs. the favorite – Scotch Plains – that has been there before and done that.
The clash is set to kick off Sunday at 6 p.m. at Kean University’s Alumni Stadium in Union.
After losing to Governor Livingston twice in two tries in the regular season, Union defeated the Highlanders 2-0 in the semifinals behind goals from forwards Natalie Caggiano and Nneka Moneme. Senior goalkeeper Stephanie Rivero made five saves for the shutout.
Union defeated GL 1-0 in last year’s quarterfinals to reach the semifinals for only the second time and first time since 2001. Like this year, Union was swept by GL in two regular season games.
The third time was a charm last year and this year for Union, this time putting the Farmers in the final for the initial time.
“Last year we beat GL to get to the semifinals, which was only the second time Union got that far, and this year we beat them to get to the final, which is for the first time.
“It was kind of a surreal feeling. We won and now we’re in the championship game. What do we do from here?”
What Union will be trying to do is to score a goal for the first time against Scotch Plains since last year’s semifinals, which was a 2-1 Raider victory.
Gina Alfano gave Union a 1-0 lead in last year’s semifinals before Tori Baliatico tied the game 30 seconds later. Katherine Cunningham, on a free kick, scored the game-winner in the 79th minute.
This year, the teams opened in Scotch Plains, with the Raiders winning 3-0 on Sept. 5. When the teams played in Union on Oct. 2 the final result was a 0-0 draw.
“The 3-0 loss was a learning experience,” said second-year Union head coach Phyllis Neshimka. “We have history with Scotch Plains the last two years. It starts to be a battle that goes back and forth.”
Scotch Plains is 6-1-2 in the last nine UCT finals, winning six outright titles and sharing two. The Raiders have won eight UCT titles overall, all since the first final they made, which was in 2005.
The only year since 2005 that Scotch Plains has not won the UCT outright or shared it was in 2009 when the Raiders fell to Cranford 1-0 in the final played at Johnson High School’s Nolan Field in Clark.
Scotch Plains was also a four-time defending UCT champion that night, so the Raiders can be had if Union plays to its full potential.
Union has reached the semifinals now in 2001, 2013 and 2014.
“Reaching the final for the first time is huge for us,” Neshimka said. “We had an amazing game against GL. We’ve felt since Aug. 11 that we needed to make the final this year.”
Union has seven seniors among its starting 11, including Natalie Caggiano, who also scored the only goal in Union’s 1-0 quarterfinal win over GL last season.
“I have confidence in my entire starting 11,” said Neshimka, who was previously an assistant coach at Union for four seasons from 2009-2012 under Eric Shaw. Now in his second season as the head boys’ coach at Westfield, Shaw has guided the Blue Devils to the boys’ championship game, which will be against three-time defending champion Scotch Plains Saturday night at 7 at Kean.
Shaw helped lead Union – as a standout goalkeeper – to the 1990 UCT championship his sophomore season. He blanked Elizabeth 3-0 in the title contest.
Neshimka, a 2000 Union Catholic graduate, helped lead the Vikings to UCT championships her sophomore, junior and senior seasons of 1997, 1998 and 1999.
“It’s kind of weird and ironic that we both got to the championship game our second years,” Neshimka said.
Baliatico is a player to watch for Scotch Plains. A senior forward, last year she scored the game’s only goal when the Raiders defeated Cranford 1-0 in the championship game played at Kean.
Union improved to 9-5-3 with a 3-0 home win over Elizabeth Monday.
“We have two modes,” Neshimka said. “Against Elizabeth we won, but were very lax. Against GL, with something on the line, people were saying, ‘we were really on.’”
Scotch Plains began the week at 14-0-2. The Raiders blanked Westfield 1-0 in their semifinal.
UNION’S STARTING 11
Goalkeeper – Stephanie Rivero, senior
Sweeper – Adora Moneme, senior
Stopper – Sam Pereira, senior
Wing defender – Krystle Vera, senior
Wing defender – Gina Alfano, junior
Midfielder on the wing – Nicole Araujo, senior
Midfielder – Vanessa Leite, senior
Midfielder – Melissa Sousa, sophomore
Midfielder – Alyssa Caggiano, sophomore
Forward – Natalie Caggiano, senior
Forward – Nneka Moneme, sophomore
UCT GIRLS’ SOCCER CHAMPIONSHIP
SCORES AND WINNERS:
2014: 3-Union vs. 1-Scotch Plains – Sunday at Kean, 6 p.m.
2013: Scotch Plains 1, Cranford 0
2012: Scotch Plains 1, Westfield 1 – co-champs
2011: Scotch Plains 1, Westfield 0
2010: Scotch Plains 2, Westfield 0
2009: Cranford 1, Scotch Plains 0
2008: Scotch Plains 3, Johnson 0
2007: Scotch Plains 1, Westfield 0
2006: Scotch Plains 1, Westfield 1 – co-champs
2005: Scotch Plains 1, Oak Knoll 0
2004: Governor Livingston 1, Cranford 0
2003: Oak Knoll 5, Gov. Livingston 0
2002: Westfield 1, Oak Knoll 1 – co-champs
2001: Westfield 2, New Providence 0
2000: Cranford 3, Union Catholic 1
1999: Union Catholic 4, Cranford 1
1998: Union Catholic 1, Cranford 0
1997: Union Catholic 2, Scotch Plains 0
1994: Westfield 2, Johnson 1
1993: Union Catholic
Scotch Plains 8
Union Catholic 4
Oak Knoll 2
Governor Livingston 1