Cranford senior Taylor D’Antico is a special athlete for the Cougars, a three-sport standout that takes her athletics very seriously.
On the soccer pitch this fall, D’Antico has come up big many times for the girls’ team.
Her goal in a penalty kick shootout propelled Cranford past top-seeded Westfield in last week’s Union County Tournament semifinals, with the Cougars winning the match 1-0 and the penalty kick shootout 4-3.
Another penalty kick goal she scored, 15 minutes in, sparked fifth-seeded Cranford to a surprising 1-0 triumph over second-seeded and four-time defending champion Scotch Plains in Saturday night’s UCT final at Johnson High School’s Nolan Field in Clark.
When people first think of girls’ soccer in Union County, they think of Scotch Plains and Westfield.
Now they will think of Cranford first, which took out top-seeded Westfield in the semifinals and second-seeded Scotch Plains in the final.
"This is unbelievable, a dream come true, our whole team wanted this so badly,” said D’Antico, who was the third baseman on Cranford’s sectional championship softball team this past spring.
Cranford, with a true team effort, captured its second UCT title and first since 2000. The Cougars were in the final for the first time since 2004.
Cranford’s softball team did not repeat as county champions this spring, nor did its volleyball team last year. This was the time for the girls’ soccer team to finally win the crown again for the first time in nine years.
“We worked really hard the whole game and it was great that we came out on top,” said D’Antico , who will continue playing soccer in college.
Scotch Plains was going for its fifth straight title and fifth crown overall. The Raiders won their first championships in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.
“To lose 10 seniors from last year, I don’t think anyone expected us to come back,” Scotch Plains head coach Kevin Ewing said. “Something has to be said for these girls as far as what they did.”
Cranford improved to 15-2-2, while Scotch Plains fell to 14-2-1.
Both teams endured a steady, misty rain and heavy winds at times.
Cranford senior Jen Folger was tripped in the penalty box, with Cranford being awarded a penalty kick by the ref. D’Antico blasted a shot into the left corner of the goal past a diving Scotch Plains junior keeper Paige DellaBadia.
“I wanted to score so badly,” D’Antico said. “All the pressure was on me, but I wanted to make the kick and had the confidence to make it and that’s exactly what happened.”
Play in the first half was pretty even, with Scotch Plains having a good chance with 10 minutes left when sophomore forward Sarah VanBuskirk fired a shot from inside the penalty box that Cranford senior goalkeeper Lauren Grandal caught and saved.
Scotch Plains had the more dangerous chances in the second half. One of them was a hard shot by sophomore Jackie Mains that was saved by Grandal at point-blank range with 14 minutes left.
“They (Cranford) didn’t have much pressure, just the penalty kick,” Ewinng said. “I’m proud of my girls for the way they played and handled themselves.”
Scotch Plains senior Sarah Canfield did a good job of clearing a ball in front of the Raider goal earlier in the half.
Scotch Plains was without two starters. Seniors Morgan Burke and Kathryn Dinizo were out with ACL injuries.
Cranford lost to Scotch Plains in last year’s semifinals on the same field and remembered how tough of a defeat that was.
“We knew that this year we had something special and our coach (Jen Michewicz) told us that,” D’Antico said. “We just knew that we had to work hard to get here and that’s exactly what we did.”
Michewicz wanted her team to relax and play its game. That she thought was the way to beat Scotch Plains.
“It was our goal tonight to start the game with a lot of intensity,” Michewicz said. “We wanted to be the team that was controlling the play and dictating the match and I thought, for the majority of the match, we did that.”
“Scotch Plains started fighting back in the last 15 minutes of the game, but, besides that, I thought we really were successful in our game plan.”
Michewicz joins a list of Cranford coaches that have led teams to county championships, including Dennis McCaffery (baseball), Brian Chapman (girls’ basketball), Lucy Diaz (girls’ volleyball), Terry Biunno, Shannon Norton and Bob Bruno (softball) and also track and cross country coaches that have led those teams to county titles.
Present boys’ soccer coach Mike Curci hopes to lead Cranford to its first-ever county championship next Saturday night at 7 at Johnson when the top-seeded Cougars face second-seeded Westfield for the title.
Michewicz couldn’t be prouder of her team for the accomplishment it achieved, especially as an underdog.
“This was a true team effort, absolutely,” Michewicz said. “I have 13 seniors on the team this year and I knew coming into the season, because they have been playing together since they were young, that this was their year.
“We told them this was their chance that they’ve been waiting for since they were little and playing in the Cranford club program. We told them that they were seniors now and this was their chance to show everyone what they could do.”
NOTES: Cranford’s junior varsity team defeated Westfield 1-0 to win its Union County Tournament championship.
Scotch Plains was scheduled to host Cranford this week in regular season play, but the game will be postponed because of the UCT final between the two teams. The conference game may or may not be made up depending on the conference circumstances.
UNION COUNTY TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP GAME AT JOHNSON’S NOLAN FIELD IN CLARK
5-CRANFORD (15-2-2) 1 0 - 1
2-SCOTCH PLAINS (14-2-1) 0 0 - 0
CRANFORD – Goal: Taylor D’Antico, on a penalty kick. Assist: None. Time: 24:34.
SHOTS: Cranford 4, Scotch Plains 5.
CRANFORD GOALIE: Lauren Grandal, senior, five saves and a shutout.
SCOTCH PLAINS GOALIE: Paige DellaBadia, junior, three saves.