Both Union County Tournament soccer championship game matchups offer certain elements of intrigue.
They are now scheduled for Friday night at Kean University’s Alumni Stadium in Union – hopefully before the rain, heavy winds and lower temperatures prevail.
It will be third-seeded and eight-time defending (twice shared) champion Scotch Plains vs. top-seeded Cranford in the girls’ game at 6 p.m. followed by fourth-seeded Union vs. third-seeded and two-time defending (once shared) champion Westfield at 8 p.m.
There will be no penalty kicks. If the matches are still tied after two sudden death (Golden Goal) overtime periods there will be co-champions just like in the past. It happened on both sides last year with Scotch Plains and Westfield sharing the girls’ crown after a 1-1 draw and Westfield and Elizabeth sharing the boys’ title after another 1-1 deadlock.
UCT SEMIFINALS AT JOHNSON OCT. 20:
Cranford 2, Summit 1 (2OT)
Scotch Plains 5, Union 4 (OT)
Union 2, Elizabeth 1 (OT)
Westfield 1, Scotch Plains 1 (PKs 8-7)
On the girls’ side it will be Cranford vs. Scotch Plains for the first time in five years.
Scotch Plains, guided by longtime head coach Kevin Ewing, has advanced to the championship game for the 14th straight season, quite an accomplishment. In the span from 2005-2017 Scotch Plains has won or shared 12 of the past 13 tournament titles, including the last eight.
The only time in the past 13 years that the Raiders did not win the championship was in 2009 when they were edged by Cranford 1-0 in the final at Johnson High School.
Scotch Plains never won the UCT before this run that began in 2005. Now the Raiders have the second most titles with 12, three of them shared.
Cranford has won the championship twice, the first time in 2000. Union Catholic was going for its fourth straight title when Cranford won that year. Scotch Plains was going for its fifth consecutive crown when the Cougars were triumphant for the second time nine years ago.
On the boys’ side it will be Union vs. Westfield for only the second time and the first time since 1967, the second year of the tournament. Union defeated Westfield 2-1 jn that year’s final for the first of its four county crowns.
Union last won the UCT in 1999 and was last in the final in 2011. Westfield shared the crown with Elizabeth last year after winning the title outright two years ago by beating five-time defending champion Scotch Plains in the final.
Westfield has won the second most titles with 12, two of them shared. Scotch Plains has won the most with 19, one of them shared.
The top-seeded Cranford girls’ are 15-2 and have captured the Union County Conference’s Watchung Division title with an 8-1 record. The Cougars have won nine straight.
They are guided by third-year head coach Andrew Gagliardo, a 2005 Union graduate who played for longtime Union head coach Jim Jeskey. Two years ago Gagliardo succeeded highly-successful head coach Jen Michewicz, who guided Cranford to the 2009 UCT championship and the 2013 UCT final. An All-America selection and two-year captain at Seton Hall, the Pottstown, Pa. native took over as Cranford’s head coach in 2008.
Gagliardo was the junior varsity coach in 2013 and a varsity assistant for two years before taking over as head coach in 2016. Gagliardo also played at Montclair State.
Kenzie Butler scored in double overtime to send Cranford past fifth-seeded Summit 2-1 in Saturday’s semifinals at Johnson. Lauren Williamson scored to give Cranford a 1-0 lead early in the second half before Summit tied it.
Williamson leads Cranford in goals with 11 and also has four assists. Maggie Murray leads in assists with 12 and also has eight goals.
Holly Nelson’s goal in single overtime was the winner for Scotch Plains over second-seeded Union in Saturday’s 5-4 triumph at Johnson. Leah Klurman netted three goals and Corinne Lyght produced two assists for the Raiders.
Lyght, a junior, leads Scotch Plains in goals with 11 and is also tied for the team lead in assists with seven. Lizzie Ley has three goals and seven assists.
Cranford’s outstanding goalkeeper is Amanda Vath, who was credited with eight saves vs. Summit. Maya Kessler is having a fine season in goal for Scotch Plains.
Cranford and Scotch Plains did not face each other in Watchung Division play Sept. 25 at Scotch Plains, but did clash in Cranford on Oct. 16, with the host Cougars coming out on top by the score of 2-1. Murray and Brooke Swandrak scored for Cranford, with Williamson assisting both goals and Vath coming up with seven saves.
Scotch Plains takes a 11-4-1 record into Friday night’s UCT final, including a two-game winning streak.
The Union boys’ blanked Governor Livingston 4-0 Tuesday to improve to 13-0-2. The Farmers lead the UCC’s Mountain Division standings at 8-0-1, with division games remaining at home against Linden and at Dayton and at New Providence. Union’s game at New Providence for Thursday was postponed.
Union has won its last eight matches since a 1-1 tie at home against GL on Sept. 27. Union’s only other non-win was a 0-0 tie at home against Watchung Division squad Summit back on Sept. 18.
Union went 0-16-3 last year. Twelve months later and the Farmers do not have a loss yet this time.
After winning a combined three games the past two seasons – Union went 3-15 in 2016 – the Farmers were dropped down to the UCC’s Mountain Division for the 2018 campaign.
Union has responded – probably beyond its wildest dreams. Not only are the Farmers till unbeaten, but fourth-seeded Union defeated Watchung Division schools Summit – the fifth seed – and Elizabeth – the top seed – to advance to the UCT final for the first time in seven years.
It was standout senior striker and Union’s leading goal scorer Andre Vieira who sent the Farmers past defending co-champion Elizabeth in Saturday’s semifinals at Johnson with a penalty kick goal in the first overtime.
Vieira had 22 goals and three assists prior to Union’s win Tuesday at GL. Leading the team in assists was Kerin St. Clair with six to go along with his seven goals.
Senior keeper Manny Melendez has been solid in goal all season long and came up with two outstanding saves in the UCT semifinal win vs. Elizabeth.
Union has outscored its first 15 foes 46-12.
Forget about the always ludicrous “but who have they played” argument here. Union just went out and beat two teams from the upper division in county tournament play, including the top seed.
“This was a lot of work what we did and it didn’t start in August, it began last winter,” said Union head coach Lester Lembryk, at the helm of the Farmers since 2008. “My vision was long-term. I didn’t think we would get to where we are this soon.”
Union began 4-0, including an opening 2-0 win at Raritan for the team’s first victory since 2016. After a 2-1 win at Franklin came the tie against Summit. Union then won at Johnson 2-1 before the tie vs. GL.
“Yes, this has been very satisfying so far,” Lembryk said. “This is a special group. Last year we had a very young team. They worked extremely hard in the off season.
“We had to change the mindset and get them to believe. Seniors such as Andre and Manny have trickled down to the younger players.”
One of those younger players, sophomore Michael Simoes, tied the UCT semifinal game against Elizabeth with a goal in the second half. Elizabeth made it 1-0 in the first half on a free kick goal.
“Elizabeth is fast and they try to get it out to the channels as much as possible,” Lembryk said. “Both teams had good opportunities. Our players knew what to do and it showed.”
Now Union is preparing – for a change – for its first match of the season against Westfield. For the first time in a long time they have not faced each other until this late in the season.
The Blue Devils are guided by sixth-year head coach Eric Shaw, a 1993 Union graduate who as the varsity’s sophomore goalkeeper in 1990 blanked Elizabeth 3-0 in that year’s UCT final at Elizabeth’s Williams Field, which was grass back then.
“As a coach you talk about your experiences and that’s where my passion came from,” Shaw said. “That game in 1990 has driven me throughout my career.”
Shaw also helped lead another Union team to a county championship. He was the starting and winning pitcher in the 1993 UCT baseball final played at Linden’s Memorial Field. Shaw led second-seeded Union to a 5-3 win over top-seeded Westfield, which is still Union’s last county championship in baseball.
Shaw, who went on to star collegiately at Seton Hall, was the Union JV girls’ coach for one year in 1998 before taking over that role for the boys’ in 1999. After being the JV boys’ coach from 1999-2004 Shaw went to St. Benedict’s Prep for two seasons – 2005 and 2006 – and was the goalies and assistant coach under head coach Rich Jacobs. Shaw was an assistant along with Jimmy Wandling, who is now the head coach.
Then Shaw came back to Union and was the girls’ varsity coach for six seasons from 2007-2012.
When Lembryk, who was previously an assistant coach under Jim Jeskey, was hired to succeed Jeskey, Shaw remained as the girls’ varsity coach at Union.
“I went for the boys’ job and applied at the same time Lester did,” Shaw said.
Jeskey was Union’s head boys’ soccer coach for 47 seasons from 1961-2007. The first head coach was Gordon LeMatty in 1959 and 1960, with Jeskey as his assistant.
Jeskey led Union to more than 500 wins, four county championships and 11 conference titles.
When Shaw became the Westfield boys’ soccer head coach in 2013 he succeeded George Kapner, who led the Blue Devils to two group state championships. Kapner, who coached 68 varsity teams over a 40-year span at Westfield, retired two years ago and was then inducted into the NJ Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Jeskey is a member of the Union County Baseball Association Hall of Fame and the Union High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
Lembryk was also a goalie like Shaw. The 1994 Clifton graduate, who played on two county championship teams with the Mustangs, went on to succeed collegiately at FDU and then Kean.
“I have a temendous amount of respect for Eric as a coach and a person,” Lembryk said. “We have a pretty good relationship on and off the field.
“We have the same goals, what we want to accomplish, and will still be buddies after this game.”
Without having played Westfield yet, here is what Union is working on for its preparation: “we just have to stay focused,” Lembryk said. “We have to break down Westfield’s strong points and weaknesses and, formation wise, we may tweak things a bit.
“Not having already played them definitely plays a role. We’ve beaten Summit and Elizabeth now. We’re excited and happy.
“Last year was a learning experience for us.”
Westfield is now 6-5-3 overall after Monday’s 2-1 Watchung Division home loss to Plainfield. Westfield cancelled Thursday’s game at Princeton.
Not often does the lower-seeded team have more than twice as many wins as the higher seed squad for a county final, which is the case here.
The Blue Devils got past second-seeded Scotch Plains – 16-0-1 at the time – in their Saturday UCT semifinal at Johnson by outscoring the Raiders 8-7 in penalty kicks.
After a 1-1 draw following regulation and two overtime periods, both teams scored all five rounds in the penalty kick shootout. Then both scored in the sixth round. Then both scored again in the seventh.
Jeff Bennet scored in the eighth round for Westfield and then Scotch Plains missed, sending the Blue Devils to the UCT final for the third straight time and for the fourth time in the past five years.
Westfield, like Union, trailed 1-0 at intermission. The Blue Devils finally scored with just under two minutes to go, Evan Meade knotting the game at 1-1.
“Obstruction was called and it was an indirect kick (meaning the ball had to touch another player before going in to count as a goal),” Shaw said. “The goalie touched it and it went in. If the goalie didn’t touch it and it went in it wouldn’t have counted.“
Shaw said both teams had opportunities prior to the penalty kicks.
“They had a chance or two in the first overtime and we had one in the second,” Shaw said.
The game, which was the fifth sporting event at Johnson Saturday starting with the UCT field hockey final at noon, did not – according to Shaw – begin until 8:30 p.m. and ended something like 11:15.
All four soccer semifinal games that followed the UCT field hockey final went to overtime – two to single overtime, one to double and one to penalty kicks.
Since Union played Tuesday Westfield had another opportunity to scout the Farmers.
“We typically played each other so this time we have to go by notes taken from games,” Shaw said.
To say Westfield has had success against Union in the past would be an understatement. The Blue Devils are 11-0-1 against Union from 2012-2017 and 17-1-3 against the Farmers from 2008-2017, including a state tournament win in 2010.
“We’ve had some good matches over the years,” Shaw said. “I think a majority of them have been decided by one goal.”
Six of the 17 Westfield wins in that span over Union have been by one goal.
The last time Westfield did not beat Union was in its home game against the Farmers in 2015, a 0-0 draw.
The last time Union defeated Westfield was a 4-3 Farmers win at Westfield in 2011, which was the last year Union reached the UCT final. The teams also played to a 1-1 draw at Union that season. There was a 3-3 deadlock at Westfield in 2009.
“This game is about this year and this year’s players,” Shaw said. “In the end we have to set the tone, play our style and dictate the flow.”
Meade leads Westfield with nine goals and Devin Caherly with six assists. Goalkeepers include senior Julian Trott and freshman Ryan Friedberg.
“It comes down to personnel,” Shaw said. “We’re aware of their style of play. Lester and I are similar. We both like to play from the back up.”
There was a phone call Monday regarding this game.
“We wished each other luck,” Shaw said. “I still have a very cordial relationship with Lester. We both have a passion for the game.”
For Shaw and his Blue Devils there was nothing but joy when they beat five-time defending champion and neighborhood arch rival Scotch Plains 2-1 to capture the 2016 crown. That was Westfield’s first title since the Blue Devils defeated Scotch Plains 2-1 in overtime in the 2010 final.
After last year’s 1-1 draw against Elizabeth declared co-champions, the emotion coming from Westfield was decidedly different.
“The mood wasn’t as positive,” Shaw said. “When we look back we are pleased in general, but it wasn’t the same.”
UCT BOYS’ SOCCER
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME SCORES
1966: Edison Tech 2, Westfield 1
1967: Union 2, Westfield 1
1968: Edison Tech 1, Pingry 0
1969: Scotch Plains 2, Johnson 1
1970: Pingry 0, Scotch Plains 0 – co-champs
1971: Gov. Livingston 1, Pingry 0
1972: Gov. Livingston 1, Johnson 0
1973: Gov. Livingston 1, Edison Tech 0
1974: Pingry 1, Westfield 0
1975: Pingry 1, Johnson 0
1976: Summit 1, Pingry 1 – co-champs
1977: Pingry 2, Scotch Plains 0
1978: Union 2, Linden 0
1979: Gov. Livingston 3, Westfield 2
1980: Summit 2, Westfield 2 – co-champs
1981: Westfield 3, Summit 1
1982: Westfield 8, Scotch Plains 0
1983: Pingry 2, Westfield 1
1984: Westfield 4, New Providence 1
1985: Westfield 3, Scotch Plains 2
1986: Scotch Plains 1, Westfield 0
1987: Scotch Plains 2, Westfield 1
1988: Westfield 2, Scotch Plains 1
1989: Scotch Plains 1, Westfield 0 (shootout)
1990: Union 3, Elizabeth 0
1991: Westfield 1, Cranford 0
1992: Scotch Plains 2, Westfield 1
1993: Westfield 2, Scotch Plains 1
1994: Gov. Livingston 2, Westfield 1
1995: Johnson 2, Union 1
1996: Westfield 1, Rahway 0
1997: Scotch Plains 3, Elizabeth 0
1998: Scotch Plains 2, Cranford 0
1999: Union 2, Scotch Plains 0
2000: Scotch Plains 2, Johnson 0
2001: Scotch Plains 1, Johnson 0
2002: Scotch Plains 1, Cranford 0
2003: Linden 1, Scotch Plains 0
2004: Scotch Plains 1, Union 0
2005: Elizabeth 4, Scotch Plains 3
2006: Scotch Plains 4, Union 2
2007: Scotch Plains 4, Elizabeth 0
2008: Elizabeth 1, Summit 0
2009: Cranford 1, Westfield 0
2010: Westfield 2, Scotch Plains 1 (OT)
2011: Scotch Plains 1, Union 0
2012: Scotch Plains 5, Gov. Livingston 2
2013: Scotch Plains 4, Elizabeth 2
2014: Scotch Plains 2, Westfield 1
2015: Scotch Plains 1, Elizabeth 0 (OT)
2016: Westfield 2 Scotch Plains 1
2017: Westfield 1, Elizabeth 1 – co-champs
Scotch Plains 19 (1 shared)
Westfield 12 (2 shared)
Pingry 6 (2 shared)
Gov. Livingston 5
Edison Tech 2
Elizabeth 2 (1 shared)
Summit 2 (both shared)
Scotch Plains 29
Elizabeth 11 (includes Edison Tech 3)
Gov. Livingston 6
UCT GIRLS’ SOCCER
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME SCORES
2017: Westfield 1, Scotch Plains 1 – co-champs
2016: Scotch Plains 1, Oak Knoll 0 (OT)
2015: Scotch Plains 2, Westfield 1
2014: Scotch Plains 1, Union 0 (2OT)
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: Gov. 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
Westfield 20 (4 shared)
Scotch Plains 12 (3 shared)
Union Catholic 4
Oak Knoll 2 (1 shared)
Gov. Livingston 1