Right back where they expected to be.
That can be said for the Cranford Cougars as they are, for the second straight season, one win away from capturing their first county crown since 2009.
The 39th annual girls’ soccer Union County Tournament championship game will pit third-seeded Westfield (8-3-5) vs. top-seeded Cranford (13-3-1) Friday night at 7:30 at Johnson High School’s Nolan Field in Clark.
The junior varsity championship game between Scotch Plains and Cranford will precede at 6 p.m.
This is the first year since 2004 that Scotch Plains is not in the final, with the second-seeded Raiders being knocked out in the semifinals by Westfield. Scotch Plains won the last nine titles, two of them shared.
Cranford reached the final last year for the first time since 2013 and lost to Scotch Plains 2-0. In 2013 the Cougars fell to the Raiders 1-0.
The only time since 2005 that Scotch Plains did not win the title outright or shared was in 2009 when Cranford defeated the Raiders 1-0 on a penalty kick goal at Johnson.
Cranford’s first of three championships came in 2000 when the Cougars defeated three-time defending champion Union Catholic 3-1 in the final. That Cranford team went on to capture a share of the Group 3 state championship and finished as the No. 1-ranked team in New Jersey that season.
Westfield, which has won the most UCT titles with 20 and four of them shared, battled Scotch Plains to a 1-1 draw to gain a share of the 2017 crown. The Blue Devils last won the championship outright in 2001. The last four times Westfield won the crown was shared in 2017, 2012, 2006 and 2002.
In Union County Conference-Watchung Division play this season defending outright champion Cranford swept Westfield, winning two one-goal games. At Cranford on Sept. 12 Cranford won 2-1 on a goal by standout senior Maggie Murray one minute into overtime.
There was a sequence where Murray had a shot saved and then teammate Riley Korzeneski followed up the rebound with a shot of her own that was saved. Murray then followed Korzeneski’s shot by blasting the rebound home for the game-winner.
Murray assisted freshman Aileen McGovern’s first varsity goal, which came on a header, that tied the game at 1-1 in the second half. Both sides were held without a goal the first 40 minutes. Cranford outshot Westfield 15-5.
When they clashed in Westfield on Oct. 7 Cranford had the edge in shots again 16-11 and again Murray scored the game-winner. It was a goal by Murray in the second half that propelled the Cougars to a 1-0 victory.
“The first two games were both good games, one-goal games, and I think we dominated play in both,” Cranford head coach Andrew Gagliardo said. “Westfield had a good tactic with Faith Dobosiewicz playing an attacking role in the midfield the first game.
“In the second game Coach (Alex) Schmidt had her back as their stopper, in the sweeper role. She’s obviously the most dominant player on the field for them and she was their anchor in the back.”
While admitting that he feels it’s a difficult task to beat a quality team three times in one season, Gagliardo has all the confidence in the world in his players and expects them to perform at an even higher level come Friday night.
“The first two games against them we had some unlucky finishes and hit a couple of posts and crossbars,” Gagliardo said. “Westfield plays Top 20 teams the whole season and plays the game gritty and hard. We were lucky to come out with wins both times.”
With practically his entire team back from last season, Gagliardo expects experience to play a key factor.
“Last year it was a great accomplishment for our team to get to the final,” Gagliardo said. “It was the first time since myself and (assistant coach) Lindsey Fisk took over in 2016 that we got that far. We had zero county final experience and I think that played a big role in how the game turned out. We were a little bit on our heels against a veteran Scotch Plains team.
“Our goal was to get back to the final and we did and we now have that experience under our belts. We pretty much have the same squad as last year. Hopefully our initial nerves will naturally go away and then we will get into the flow of the game.
“We fully expect to walk away Friday night with our first championship since 2009.”
NOTES: Should Scotch Plains beat Union in its final division game, then Cranford and Scotch Plains will share the Watchung Division championship this season, each having one loss and one tie and splitting with each other.
Cranford, which reached the North 2, Group 3 final last year, is the second seed again this time. The top seed is Middletown South and the third seed is defending champion Middletown North, which defeated Cranford in last year’s final.
Cranford’s first state game next week will be at home against 15th-seeded Warren Hills.
Right back where they expected to be.