Amidst stretches in which they’re each playing the best brand of soccer they have all season, the two teams that make up arguably Somerset County’s most-heated neighborhood rivalry battled tooth and nail for 100 minutes without reaching a final verdict.
In a physical and at times downright chippy battle between Hillsborough and Montgomery, the Courier News’ 9th and 10th-ranked teams, respectively, each side had minimal scoring opportunities at the net and the game ended in a scoreless tie at Noonan Field.
The records remain identical at 7-5-3, and they each seem to be heading in the right direction.
The Raiders are hitting their stride right in the nick of time. Unbeaten in their last six outings, including four straight shutouts, they’ll face a do-or-die proposition Saturday afternoon when they meet Pingry in a Somerset County Tournament semifinal. The teams played to a 1-1 draw in last years final and were named co-champions.
When Hillsborough got out to a surprisingly 3-5-1 record through its first nine games, changes needed to be made according to Raiders coach Eric Puma.
“I think we changed out shape a little bit and changed some personal, but we also changed our mentality,” the coach said. “It wasn’t a fun time when we were struggling. It was difficult, and I think we needed to keep instilling in the players that they re a good team and now we’re playing like it.”
Conversely, Montgomery didn’t garner very high expectations coming into this season after enduring a nightmare 2012campaign during which the Cougars didn;t win a single game. But after dealing the top team in Somerset County — Watchung Hills — a 2-0 loss last week, it appears like coach Ricky Steeb’s squad has come full circle.
“I think it (turnaround) has a lot to do about the guys will,” Steeb said. “I’m very proud of them. Not that many people experience a winless season. It was rough and something we never experienced before.
“Staring with our seniors and our captains, they put in the hard work in the offseason and set a good example for everybody. We feel like we’re in every single game and really want it this year. And as a result we’re getting results.”
On Thursday, Hillsborough got off to a sluggish start in the first half and failed to generate many scoring chances. But Raiders keeper Brian Yaskowski made four saves in the first 40 minutes to send the teams into the intermission deadlocked.