The combined resume of the teams in play for the Somerset County Tournament semifinals is quite impressive with regards to the frequency of championship game appearances.
In fact, the 2013 Somerset County final four has 28 collective title game appearances in the 37-year history of the event. Outside of traditional powerhouse Pingry though, its been a mixed bag of results. The Big Blue have accounted for three-quarters of the group’s vying rights in the final, and have either won or shared the crown 18 times.
The remaining survivors – Watchung Hills, Gill St. Bernard’s and Hillsborough – have shared the title four times in six tries. Hillsborough, the reigning co-champion with Pingry via a 1-1 draw in the 2012 final, has quenched its championship thirst with three title shares in as many tries.
Gill made trips to the final in 1994 and 2008, bowing each time to Pingry by a combined scored of 6-1. Watchung Hills made its lone appearance on the grand stage in 2000 and was awarded a co-championship after the game ended scoreless.
Looking ahead at this weekend’s matchups, a stark contrast between the matchups in terms of familiarity pushes itself to the forefront. The Hillsborough-Pingry match, a No. 6 seed vs. No. 2 seed draw, is symbolic of not only latter-stage experience in the SCT. It’s also a collision of teams held twice each year in regular season action.
On the flip side, the No. 4 Gill-No. 1 Watchung Hills tilt is of a rarer breed. In addition to having just one combined final appearance this decade, the clubs rarely do battle as they lurk in opposite divisions of the Skyland Conference.
It’s widely believed that coaches get too much credit when their teams win, and too much of the blame when they lose. So before anything is decided, let’s get the perspectives on Saturday’s SCT semifinals from the men who preside at the helm of the four remaining clubs.
Pingry’s Miller Bugliari:
“I think we’re maturing. I think we are trying to eliminate our mistakes, but I do think that we have some of the pieces of the puzzle together. But you know, anything can happen. We’re a young team with a couple of veterans, and we’re trying to piece all the parts together. I think we move the ball pretty well and we’re trying to take advantage of good opportunities when we have them. If that works at least we should be competitive and that’s all you can ask for.”
Hillsborough’s Eric Puma: “What’s seen us through the season is our ability to stick together because we certainly have had some trying times and we kept our self confidence. The difference for us having more success – the past two games as perfect example – has been good team defense and taking advantage of the chances we get; our ability to finish when they come.”
Gill St. Bernards’ Tony Bednarsky: “We preach respect, and everyone certainly has a lot respect. We fear no one. It’s a unique group because we’re very young with four freshmen and three sophomores in the starting lineup, and the three seniors we have show great leadership. I think we have enough veteran leadership for a young team. Jack Lowe, who is a junior, told the younger guys the other day that every game is hard now; there’s a lot of do-or-die games coming up. The veterans are nursing the younger guys along. Club-wise, the young guys have played in big games, but this matchup is a step up in class for us. It will be interesting to see how these guys will adjust to that. They’re still freshmen and sophomores so sometimes were waiting for glaring mistakes but we’ve been fortunate they haven’t come vet. With our progressive maturity this season and the leadership of the veterans we feel that we can play with anyone. We like to say, ‘the future is now.’ We have a lot of respect for coach Leonow and he’s done a great job with that program, but we thought from the beginning of the season that the county was wide open and we still feel that way.
Watchung Hills’ Greg Leonow: “For us, the mindset is to compete at our highest level and do whatever it takes to win and get to the final. Watchung Hills has been to the final only once and that was (15) years ago, and this is a large team that is very close and will do whatever it takes for one another to play in that final. We know there’s a target on our back because of the success we’ve enjoyed this season, and we get everybody’s best effort. We’re preparing physically with lots of recover sessions going into the latter stages of this tournament. The kids are motivated and physically they’ll be prepared for Saturday’s game. We expect a tough game, but hopefully we come out on top and get back to the final.
UCT at a glance
Four Courier News locals, three of which are higher seeds, are alive and well for Saturday’s quarterfinals in this year’s 48th edition of the classic. The Cinderella is 16th-seeded Union Catholic, coming on strong of late, as it toppled ninth-seeded Plainfield and eighth-seeded Summit to reach this stage. Second-seeded Scotch Plains-Fanwood, the Pingry of Union County, has won the last two titles and leads with 16 overall. The Raiders play host to 10th-seeded Union in a rematch of the 2011 final. Defending runner-up and fourth-seeded Governor Livingston has a stern test with fifth-seeded and unbeaten Brearley, but the Highlanders are winners of 12 straight since an opening day setback. The final draw features the 2003 and 2010 tournament champions, respectively, in third-seeded Westfield and sixth-seeded Linden in a rubber match of a pair of one-goal decisions during the regular season.
HWST at a glance
Hunterdon Central (two) and North Hunterdon (one) have captured three of the four titles since the tournament evolved to incorporate Sussex County in 2009 after 26 years of operating under the Hunterdon/Warren parameter, so its only fitting they’re the final remaining locals in play for Saturday’s quarterfinals. No. 4A seed North Hunterdon, seeking its first crown since 2009 and 11th county title overall , will face 1B seed Newton, which ousted the Lions in this same round last year. Central, the defending champion and top-seeded club in the other half of the bracket, will play host to 5A seed North Warren. The Red Devils’ 13 county titles most of anyone in the tournament. The Patriots have two titles (2002 and 2004).
Brian Yaskowski, Hillsborough: The senior goalkeeper has posted four shutouts this season, but none bigger was a performance than his in a SCT quarterfinal last Saturday. Having already dropped a regular season decision, 1-0, to Bridgewater-Raritan, the Panthers were poised to take the an early advantage when their Andrew Masur was awarded a penalty kick just 15 minutes in. However, Yaskowski stopped Masur’s shot cold, one of eight saves on the game, and it swung momentum the way of sixth-seeded Hillsborough en route to upending the No. 3 seed.