Hillsborough boys soccer earns first state playoff victory since 2013

Hillsborough High School boys soccer player Dimitri Ramirez steals the ball and dribbles with it up the sideline during the team's game against Bridgewater-Raritan on Nov. 17 in Hillsborough. Hillsborough defeated Bridgewater-Raritan 2-0 to advance to the semifinals of the Central West B, Group 4 Tournament.

Winning. That’s been the message that Coach Eric Puma has been trying to instill in his Hillsborough High School boys soccer team in preparation for the state tournament this fall.

After losing back-to-back years at home in the first round of the sectional tournament the past two seasons, Puma wanted to see his club break its “mental hurdle” and secure the first state playoff victory for the program since 2013.

Puma saw his squad do that in clinical fashion on Nov. 17 against Bridgewater-Raritan Regional High School in the quarterfinals of the Central West B, Group 4 Tournament.

In front of its hometown crowd at Dan A. Noonan Field, Hillsborough put together a strong second-half performance to defeat its Somerset County rival 2-0 and advance to the semifinals.

“It’s a huge mental obstacle that we overcame,” Puma said of the victory.

“I am happy for the boys. A state tournament game win always builds confidence and always feels good. It’s emotional because you’re faced with going home and your season ending and for the seniors, their high school careers are over. When you come out on the right side of that it feels really good and there is a big sense of relief and accomplishment,” he said.

Deadlocked in a scoreless contest against Bridgewater-Raritan going into the second half, the Raiders recorded the game’s first goal in the 45th minute off the foot of senior Michael Digiovanni.

Junior Braedyn Tucker made a great run up the field with the ball and crossed a beautiful pass to Digiovanni, who smacked in his second goal of the season to give Hillsborough a 1-0 lead.

“It’s a great feeling to score a goal and see us move forward in the playoffs,” Digiovanni said. “It was really nice getting past the first round. It was a great goal and a great game.”

Puma believed getting the first goal of the contest was a “really important” momentum booster for his squad and allowed Hillsborough to establish control of the action.

The Raiders got a game-clinching score with just over six minutes remaining from Tucker, who recorded both his second goal and second assist of the fall in the victory.

Seeing the loose ball bounce to him perfectly right by the 16-yard line, Tucker used his left foot to bash in the clincher for Hillsborough and put a stamp on his great performance off the bench for the Raiders.

“There’s just no better feeling in the world,” Tucker said on scoring a goal.

“It feels amazing to come off the bench and do that to help the team move on. We thought we may not play this year or have a season. We got to, and even had sectionals, and now we’re moving on to the semifinals. It’s awesome.”

Senior Dimitri Ramirez recorded the assist on Tucker’s goal, giving the senior captain two assists on the season for Hillsborough.

The two-goal lead was plenty enough for senior goalkeeper Daniel Guerrero Nieto and the Hillsborough defense.

As they have done now in six of their seven victories this season, the Raiders kept their opponents off the scoreboard.

Guerrero Nieto recorded eight saves in his sixth shutout victory of the season to help Hillsborough hang on to earn its first state playoff victory in seven years.

Describing his emotions after the victory as indescribable, Guerrero couldn’t have been happier to earn a shutout victory and help his team advance in the playoffs.

“It proves what we’ve known all season that we’re a good defensive team,” Guerrero Nieto said. “We have a good solid defense that keeps shutouts.”

Standing now at 7-4-1 on the season, Hillsborough will face off against another Skyland Conference rival in the semifinals, traveling to play Hunterdon Central Regional High School on Nov. 19.

Hunterdon Central squeaked by the Raiders in the two’s first matchup of the season on Oct. 23 with a 1-0 victory.

Securing that elusive state playoff victory over Bridgewater-Raritan is a big confidence booster in the eyes of Puma, who believes the win gives Hillsborough some “belief and momentum” going into its matchup against Hunterdon Central.

“It gives us belief. It gives us momentum and that’s what we need,” Puma said. “We’re trying to peek at the right time and make the most of this opportunity. Now that we’re over the hump, we’re going to continue this momentum and see if we can put together another good performance in our next game.”