HILLSBOROUGH – The Hillsborough High School boys soccer team heads into the final stretch of the regular season with a 5-2-1 record as it seeks a run at a sectional title in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 4 Tournament this month.
Just a little over a month ago, the Raiders thought their chances of having a season were going to get washed out after a player in the program was in close contact with the COVID-19 outbreak at DC Gymnastics.
It resulted in the program having to shut down activities and left players and coaches wondering if they would get the chance to be on the field this fall.
“When we had that scare right after tryouts, we were all hanging on eggshells,” said senior Dimitri Ramirez.
“We were all nervous that (the season) was going to get shut down. We were excited when the season finally came and we’ve all been doing our best to limit ourselves to small groups of people outside of soccer to keep the season going.”
The Raiders were able to resume activities after the shutdown and got to start the 2020 season against the Princeton Day School on Oct. 3.
After an opening match tie, Hillsborough rolled off three consecutive victories, including a 2-0 victory over rival Bridgewater-Raritan High School.
Hillsborough then battled through four straight one-game contests, coming out on the winning end on two of those games against North Hunterdon Regional High School and most recently, edging out Franklin High School in a 2-1 victory on Oct. 31.
The Raiders battled tough in their two losses this season to seven-win teams, the Pingry School in Basking Ridge, and Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington.
The great start to the season has the Raiders and their Coach Eric Puma believing that they have what it takes to make a run at their first sectional title since 1997.
“They’re doing very well and I knew they were capable of it.” Puma said. “We’re getting better each game. They’re finding different ways to contribute on the team, whether it’s as a starter or coming off the bench. We’re making the most of our time together.”
Defense is a big strength for Hillsborough this season. The Raiders have only allowed a total of four goals scored this season and four of their victories this fall have been a result of shutout.
Senior goalkeeper Daniel Guerrero Nieto has recorded all four of those shutouts for the Raiders, racking a total of 47 saves so far this season in net.
“I think we’ve been doing well,” said junior defender Jack Burd. “Everyone is just excited to be out here and playing together.”
Burd has dished out two assists this season for Hillsborough.
On offense, juniors Jalen Moni and Mark Rudden both lead Hillsborough in goals scored with three goals apiece.
Rudden’s second half goal led Hillsborough to a 1-0 victory over Hunterdon Central on Oct. 21.
Junior Juan Medellin leads the way in the assist column for Hillsborough with three. He also has found the back of the net once this season for the Raiders.
Seniors Adam and Deen Sonbol were both key members of Hillsborough’s squad last season that won 13 games.
Adam has a goal scored and an assist this fall, while Deen has dished out two assists from his center-midfielder position.
“The season has gone very well,” Deen said. “We always thought that we could go very far in the state tournament and bring back a trophy. We move and possess the ball well. We are a team that you should fear.”
The Raiders have had a total of 10 different players find the back of the net this fall. The depth of talent on Hillsborough’s roster allows Puma to use different lineups and formations based on the opponent the Raiders are facing.
“I think we have it down to two different formations that we can use depending on who we play and what the situation is in the game to score goals,” Ramirez said. “We play every game like it’s our last.”
Hillsborough has two remaining regular season games scheduled, but could possibly have a third with a makeup game against Gill St. Bernard’s.
Having had success in the regular season and the Somerset County Tournament in recent years, the Raiders have not been unable to continue that success in the state tournament.
The team has failed to make it out of the first round of the sectional tournament the last two years.
Puma says his team is motivated to prove people wrong this season in the tournament and wants to send the seniors out on a special note.
To help his team break its recent slide in the state tournament, Puma is having his team “practice winning” in practice to get them ready for the playoffs.
“We want to do something that no team here has done in some time,” Puma said. “There are a lot of different motivations to have. You have to practice winning. We’re going to use different philosophies to get to that finish line.”
Hillsborough hosts Watchung Hills on Nov. 4 and then travels to play Ridge on Nov. 7.