UNION – Teams that go on to win championships know how to take advantage of opportunities presented to them, even if they might be few and far between.
Add a tremendous defensive effort to the mix and odds are that they’ll be hoisting the first place trophy moments after the final whistle.
That was the combination that worked for the home team Raiders in Sunday night’s 33rd annual girls’ soccer Union County Tournament championship match at KeanUniversity’s Alumni Stadium.
It was junior forward Tori Baliatico’s 17th goal of the season – scored with 3:50 remaining in the first half – and an unyielding defensive effort led by the likes of fullbacks Alyssa Riporti and Christina Rodgers that propelled top-seeded and three-time defending champion Scotch Plains past second-seeded Cranford 1-0 for the championship.
Although the visiting Cougars were not able to get off a shot that had to be saved by Scotch Plains senior goalkeeper Angela Rastelli, they presented more of a dangerous challenge in the second half and came close to getting the tying goal in the final moments when presented with back-to-back corner kicks from the right side.
Scotch Plains, playing in its ninth straight UCT final, improved to 17-0-1 and won its seventh straight game after a 1-1 tie at home against Westfield on Oct. 8.
The Raiders are now 6-1-2 in the last nine championship games – winning their first crown in 2005 – and now have eight titles, six of them outright. For the second time they have won four championships in a row, with one of those four titles shared once more.
Cranford fell for the first time this year to slip to 15-1-0. The Cougars, who don’t play Scotch Plains in the regular season this year because the Raiders are in the Union County Conference’s Watchung Division and Cranford is in the Mountain Division, was seeking their third UCT title. Cranford won its first crown in 2000 and its second in 2009.
The only year Scotch Plains didn’t win at least a share of the UCT championship since 2005 was in 2009 when Cranford defeated Scotch Plains 1-0 in the final played at Johnson High School’s Nolan Field in Clark.
Cranford senior goalkeeper Megan Pringle did a good job of keeping Scotch Plains off the scoreboard in the first half, making a save of a shot off a corner kick with 16 minutes left and then tipping a shot that then hit the crossbar and went over with 13:25 remaining.
At that time the Scotch Plains offense was beginning to apply more pressure. Senior left wing Kelly Yeager then got a hold of the ball and was able to send a pass across the middle to an oncoming Baliatico.
With a defender on her, Baliatico took Yeager’s pass, controlled it, and was able to send a shot past Pringle inside the right side of the goal.
Baliatico leads Scotch Plains with her 17 goals and also has seven assists.
“Kelly brought the ball up and then crossed it to an open space,” said Baliatico, who made her varsity debut last season when Scotch Plains tied Westfield 1-1 in the championship game. “We’ve worked on sliding the ball back, so we know what to do in those situations.”
Not often do you get both finalists coming in without a loss. It’s even rarer that both did not face each other at least once in the regular season.
“We knew coming in that Cranford was a great team and that we would have to keep up our energy,” said Scotch Plains senior Katherine Cunningham.
The Scotch Plains defense continued to prevent Cranford’s offensive players from getting any kind of room to fire a quality shot at Rastelli. Led by the play of Riporti and Rodgers, the Raiders cleared ball after ball and were in control the entire 80 minutes.
“Our defense has been great the whole season,” Cunningham said. “Riporti wins every 50-50 ball and our outside backs know how to play.”
In the final moments, Cranford had two penalty kicks that were taken by senior Mairead McKeary. After the second one, senior Annie Vollenbroek managed a left-footed shot that went over the crossbar.
Although the Cougars did not win their third county championship, they are to be commended for producing a fine effort.
25-Megan Pringle – GK
Head coach: Jen Michewicz
SCOTCH PLAINS RAIDERS
17-Angela Rastelli – GK
Head coach: Kevin Ewing
SEEDS: 1-Scotch Plains. 2-Cranford. 3-Westfield. 4-Gov. Livingston.
5-Union. 6-Summit. 7-New Providence. 8-Oak Knoll.
9-Elizabeth. 10-Rahway. 11-Kent Place. 12-Union Catholic.
13-Linden. 14-Johnson. 15-Brearley. 16-Dayton.
17-Roselle Catholic. 18-Roselle Park. 19-Plainfield.
Dayton 4, Roselle Catholic 0
Brearley 5, RosellePark 0
Johnson 6, Plainfield 0
Elizabeth 3, Dayton 0
Union Catholic 4, Linden 3
Rahway 7, Brearley 1
Kent Place 3, Johnson 2
Oak Knoll 7, Elizabeth 0
Union 5, Linden 0
Rahway 2, New Providence 1
Summit 5, Kent Place 0
Scotch Plains 4, Oak Knoll 0
Union 1, Gov. Livingston 0
Cranford 4, Rahway 1
Westfield 1, Summit 1 (shootout)
Scotch Plains 2, Union 1
Cranford 3, Westfield 1
Scotch Plains 1, Cranford 0
UCT GIRLS’ SOCCER CHAMPIONS:
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 19 (16 outright)
Scotch Plains 8 (6 outright)
Union Catholic 4
Oak Knoll 2 (1 outright)
Gov. Livingston 1