HHS boys recover to win division title

Hamilton ignites team past B-R

by Rudy Brandl, Sports Editor
   BRIDGEWATER — The Hillsborough High boys’ soccer team overcame all kinds of adversity to beat its two biggest rivals to win the Skyland Conference Delaware East Division championship last week.
   First, the Raiders had to exorcise the demons of their frustrating and shocking double-overtime home loss to Bernards in the Somerset County Tournament. Then, they had to find a way to defeat two teams that had knocked them off earlier in the season — Montgomery, the other contender for the title, and Bridgewater-Raritan, a perennial thorn in Hillsborough’s side.
   Hillsborough (11-5-1) got the job done, avenging prior defeats to both schools, to finish their divisional slate with a stellar 8-2 record. The Raiders swept Immaculata, Watchung Hills and Franklin and split with Montgomery and Bridgewater-Raritan to capture their first division banner since 2003 when they completed a three-peat.
   The Raiders weren’t even at full strength for Thursday’s pivotal showdown at Basilone Field in Bridgewater. Standout senior striker Yannick Smith sustained a calf injury in the team’s 2-0 victory over Montgomery on Senior Night and did not play Thursday night. The HHS boys pulled together and survived a late flurry to post a 3-2 victory.
   ”The boys have a lot of character,” HHS head coach Eric Puma said afterward. “They were able to put that setback behind them and win these two games. That’s a difficult thing to do.”
   ”It’s a great feeling,” added sophomore striker Shaquille Hamilton, who led the winning attack with two goals and an assist. “We were really angry that we couldn’t finish that double-overtime game so we had to come back and put everything out there.”
   While the Raiders played very well and controlled the action for most of the game, B-R made things very difficult for the them in a game where both teams had plenty of motivation. While the Raiders needed a victory to win the league title, the Panthers (7-9-1) had to win to reach the .500 mark necessary to qualify for the NJSIAA playoffs.
   ”I was very nervous about this game because I knew Bridgewater would play,” Puma said. “It’s a testament to the boys to come up with a victory against a team with their backs to the wall. They were able to overcome that tonight.”
   The closing moments of the game featured some high drama. Hillsborough had a 3-1 lead when the game clock stopped running with 2:00 to play. The referees keep the official time on the field so game clocks at scholastic facilities are typically stopped with two minutes remaining. Those two minutes, even with some injury or stoppage time thrown in, lasted an eternity.
   Bridgewater made things very interesting by scoring a goal during the early part of injury time. Although the watches worn by Puma and his assistant coaches showed that time had expired, the official timekeeper allowed play to continue. The Panthers nearly tied it on a blast from 20 yards out that hit the crossbar. The Raiders cleared the ball out of danger and the final whistle finally sounded.
   ”I can’t explain why there seemed to be extra time,” Puma said. “I guess when you have the lead and you’re waiting for the whistle, it always seems that way.”
   The Raiders opened the scoring with 12:56 remaining in the first half when Vinnie McEnroe took a pass from Hamilton and slipped it past charging goalkeeper Wesley Rowe for a 1-0 lead. Hamilton added two goals in the second half, both of which gave the visitors a two-goal lead.
   Hamilton connected on a beautiful 25-yard blast in the seventh minutes of the second half after McEnroe’s free kick was deflected but not cleared by the defense. Hamilton sprinted to the bouncing ball and ripped a right-footed shot into the upper right corner of the net for a 2-0 lead.
   ”I always like to edge out around the 18-yard box,” Hamilton said. “I controlled it and hit it as hard as I could.”
   B-R cut the deficit in half a little over a minute later when Sam Nepveaux blasted in a rebound of a shot that was knocked out by HHS goalkeeper Brandon Tillman. The Panthers threatened to tie the score but the Hillsborough defense, led by captain Collin Coslett and fellow senior Aaron Seitz, stood tall. Tillman punched away a few dangerous attempts and the Raiders maintained their lead.
   Hamilton and junior forward Jarret Smith combined on the next scoring play, a true counterattack speed rush. Smith found Hamilton streaking down the right side and Hamilton used his speed to poke it home at the far right post with 10:29 remaining.
   ”We were under pressure at 2-1 and I had to get another one in to take the pressure off,” Hamilton said. “We just had to come back and beat them, especially since they beat us the last time on our home turf. It’s pretty much all about pride.”
   The Raiders held on in the closing minutes and will take a two-game win streak and conference championship banner into the NJSIAA playoffs. Puma expects the Raiders to be seeded somewhere in the middle of the pack in their section.
   ”These guys are on a roll,” Puma said. “If we can keep it going, we’ll do well in the state tournament.”