No. 3 Hunterdon Central defeats No 3 for the 10th time to advance to the HWS final

No. 3 Hunterdon Central defeats No 3 for the 10th time to advance to the HWS final ...

This has been a season of lessons learned for 0-1 Hunterdon Central team that, in many ways, has risen above its weight class during the first six weeks of the season.

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Another crucial point came on a chilly Monday night: finding sanity in achieving optimum results, no matter what the outcome.

The Red Devils, the No. 1-seed in the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex Tournament, were held to a goalless draw in half against No- 4 seed Newton in thursday's semifinal, but they merged together after shaky first 40 minutes with obliging cheers in their huddle.

Ben Feldman, a midfielder at Hunterdon Central, said, "In those first 40 minutes, we werent horrible, but we knew coming into halftime that we could do so much better." That was the message at halftime: we must play our game and do what we believe we can do, she added.

Hunterdon Central, the No. 3-ranked team in the Top 20, put the pedal to the metal in ten minutes of the second half, finding the back of net twice to earn a hard-fought 2-1 victory to advance to next year's Hunterden/Warren/Sussex Tournament title game.

Hunterdon Central will face No. 6-seed Voorhees in the final on Saturday at Sparta in search of its fourth tri-county title in five years.

Weve learned a lot about ourselves this season, and Im kind of waited for that half to come, but it hasnt been until now, Hunterdon Central coach Anson Smith said. At half we talked about playing with a little bit of fire, but we didnt have that in the first half. You could tell in the second half that it was a completely different animal and stuttering team. It was nice to see them turn it on. They have that ability, and when they turn the switch, its a lot of fun to watch.

Nick Riga picked up the rebound from an Evan Vasquez shot in the 52nd minute to give the Red Devils the 1-0 lead they had long-coveted. Hunterdon Central increased its energy after the break and had Newton held back defensively for the opening 10 minutes before Nick Rig jumped on the ball from a Evan Vaqueez shot to ensure the red Devil's survival.

The first 10 minutes of the second half, we were just firing shots at them and mine just happened to go in, Riga said. That compelled us to keep going and led to his second goal, he said.

Feldman put Hunterdon Central ahead in the 67th minute when he got his head on a corner from Colin Adams, slipped his touch inside the right post and passed Newton goalkeeper Austin Sawell, who finished with 11 saves.

That appeared to be the dagger Hunterdon Central (12-1) needed, but Newton (11-3) had no intentions of going down easily.

Zach Robinsons 30-yard free kick in the 75th minute slipped past Hunterdon Central keeper Calan Armitage to make it a 2-1 game. The Braves, who entered the game on an eight-game winning streak, cut that deficit to one when Zach Robinson's 10-yard shot in sailed past Armiage.

Armitage and Hunterdon Centrals back line held firm to secure the Red Devils 10th straight victory.

Whats important about this team is that we have the chemistry, but we all know our roles, Feldman said. We know that we have a role to play, whether youre in off the bench, or you're playing all game. Its just incredible for me to come in and just score and perform my role. Thats what this team is all about.

Hunterdon Central entered this season with the highs and lows that have become common for a program that has reached the Group 4 title game twice in the last five seasons. But even Smith wasnt certain what kind of team this would be after graduating 23 seniors from last season and returning with little varsity experience.

So far, so good.

Smith said he didn't think anyone expected it. I knew what we were capable of, replacing 23 people is something Ive never done in my career. The good thing is, these guys are very tight. Theyre a close group, theyve known each other for ages, and Im proud to say I've met them for quite some time. I believe thatll pay off in the end. They have the hallmark of a Central team: show up, work hard, utilize the talent we have and finish games. Its worked so far, he added.

Hunterdon Centrals only defeat this season came against top-ranked Pingry in double-overtime in early September, a game the Red Devils were just 74 seconds from winning. Hunterdon Central has since produced some impressive victories over No. 6 spots Bernards, Randolph, Hillsborough, and Gill St. Bernards. And with each win, expectations for a team that is tracking as the favorite in Group 4 continue to rise.

But theres still a long way to go, including Saturday 2-1 victory over Voorhees.

Smith said, We expect to be there. Every year, the expectation is that we get to the final. Thats exactly what it is once we get to the final. But we work hard to ensure that we get there and we try to defend the title each year when we return after a year that theyve won it. Thats our goal in the beginning of the season, we expect to be there and now were here and we're going to try to go out and win it.

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Brian Deakyne may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BrianDeakyne.

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