What: The 36th Somerset County Tournament Final
When/Where: 3:30 p.m. today/Watchung Hills High School
Who: No. 6 seed Hillsborough (8-6-4) vs. No. 1 seed Watchung Hills (11-1-1).
How they got here: Hillsborough defeated No. 14 Bound Brook 3-2 (OT), No. 3 Bridgewater-Raritan 1-0 and No. 2 Pingry 2-1. Watchung Hills defeated No. 8 Somerville 3-1 and No. 4 Gill St. Bernard’s 2-1.
History: Hillsborough is making its fourth appearance in the final, having been awarded a co-championship in all three previous appearances (1983, 2006, 2012). The Raiders are the defending co-champions after playing Pingry to a 1-1 tie in last year’s final. Watchung Hills is making its second appearance in the final, having previously been awarded a co-championship by playing Bridgewater-Raritan to a scoreless tie in the 1998 final.
Hillsborough Report: The Raiders looked dead in the water as recently as three weeks ago. After dropping four straight games, they barely survived a scare from Bound Brook, a team they very well should have outclassed, in the SCT’s second round. Perhaps that was the wakeup call this team needed, as its gone 4-1-3 since. The Raiders are finishing opportunities they were failing to capitalize early in the season. Zeke Realmonte has been at the forefront, providing the offense a much needed boost with opportunistic goals. Their defense has been stingy all year, allowing just 17 goals in 18 games (.94 per contest). Keeper Brian Yaskowski has stepped his game up of late, namely during tournament play. He denied a game-changing penalty kick early the tournament’s second-round game with Bridgewater-Raritan, and survived an 20-plus minute onslaught from Pingry’s attack in last weekend’s semifinals, finishing with eight saves. Yaskowski has six shutouts.
Watchung Hills Report: The Warriors have been the class of the county and haven’t wavered, aside from a 2-1 setback to Montgomery 16 days ago. Since then, they’ve outscored three opponents by a combined score of 9-3. They’ve passed every meaningful challenge to date, be it by the slimmest of margins, and have shown time and time again they’ve poised at capturing the program’s first outright county title. Balance is key to their success, as they get contributions from a variety of players on any given day. That said, Ben Roth (2 goals, 8 assists) is their offensive facilitator and typically finds himself involved in the scoring action. Ray Arnold (4 goals, 4 assists), Dan Fonseca (3 goals, 4 assists) and Filipe Goncalves (4 goals, 1 assist) have been Roth’s primary beneficiaries. Keeper J.P. Gavin has six shutouts behind a defense that’s allowed a meager seven goals in 13 games (.54 per contest).
Analysis: Memory should serve these teams wisely. Although their lone previous meeting this season was exactly one month ago today, much can be taken from that contest in which Watchung Hills prevailed 2-1. Hillsborough led 1-0 for most of the game, before the Warriors tied it at 1 in the 55th minute and tallied the game-winner with less than 14 minutes to play. If we’ve learned anything about this year’ SCT, it’s wide open, even down to the final game. Don’t take much from Hillsborough’s loss to Somerville on Thursday, as coach Eric Puma admittedly gave many of his starters a breather after sprinting to the final. Warriors coach Greg Leonow decided to give his team a full week off to prepare for today. Hillsborough has been much more battled-tested throughout this tournament, and many of its players know what it’s like to play a do-or-die game for the crown from last year’s experience. Conversely, Watchung Hills will have home-field advantage with the game being played on its Tozier Field’s turf surface. All-told, recent history has proven the clock hasn’t necessarily struck midnight on the Cinderella of this tournament (see Bridgewater-Raritan’s plight in 2011).
Prediction: Hillsborough 1-0.