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Vol. LXIII, No. 47
 
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
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PHS Boys’ Soccer Wins State Crown

Bill Alden

When Allen Bryant started his Princeton High sports career in 2006, he envisioned himself as a future football star.

But after suffering several concussions on the gridiron as a freshman, Bryant switched to soccer. Bryant competed for the PHS JV boys’ team the next two seasons, playing goalie as a sophomore then moving to defense in 2008.

This fall, the athletic Bryant, who also stars in track and lacrosse, moved into the starting back four on the Little Tiger varsity squad.

Bryant soaked up plenty of lessons from his defensive colleagues, emerging as a key performer on a PHS squad that had surrendered only six goals on the season and posted 18 shutouts coming into last Friday’s NJSIAA Group III state championship game against defending champion Millburn.

“We have four seniors back there besides me,” said Bryant, referring to Scott Schwarz, Max Reid, Wilson Urias, and goalie Steve Hellstern. “They have all been playing on the team for a while; they taught me the way.”

In the title game, Bryant culminated his unlikely rise up the soccer ladder, scoring a goal to help PHS top Millburn 2-1 before a crowd of nearly 2,500 at Lions Stadium on the campus of The College of New Jersey.

The triumph gave the Little Tigers a final record of 21-0-4 as the team won the program’s first state crown since 1995.

After a raucous post-game celebration that saw several PHS players jump up the bleachers into the throng of fellow students on hand, Bryant acknowledged that he couldn’t envision how things turned out for him.

“Words can’t even describe it; we had a great JV season last season but I never thought anything like this would happen,” said a grinning Bryant.

“I knew we were pretty good going into the season but I don’t think any of us expected this. It is so wonderful.”

Bryant certainly didn’t expect to score a goal on Friday, getting urged up the field as he recorded his first career tally.

“Coach [Wayne] Sutcliffe made me go up there,” recalled Bryant, whose tally came with 23:35 left in the first half off a free kick by classmate Evan Gershkovich.

“The kick was a little short and I was like ‘oh man I ran all the way up here for nothing’ It came my way. I used my stomach to knock it down and then I kicked it in.”

Some five minutes later, PHS built its lead to 2-0 when a Gershkovich free kick was knocked home by senior defender Max Reid.

Things got dicey in the second half as Millburn pulled within one on a Chris Benedict goal with 26:30 remaining in regulation. The Millers kept the heat on and had a great chance with 14 minutes left when goalie Hellstern was caught out of position with the ball loose in the box. A Millburn shot, though, was cleared off the line by PHS defender Urias in a play that preserved the title for the Little Tigers.

Bryant acknowledged that he was getting uneasy in the face of the Millburn flurry. “There was a point where I was really worried,” said Bryant. “Their sweeper (Benedict) came up and really made me work back there on every ball.”

Even the normally imperturbable Hellstern got frazzled as Millburn put the pressure on.

“The whole season we have allowed only a few goals and when Wilson made the save, I told myself that I am not going letting up another goal, it’s life or death, no way, no how,” said Hellstern.

“I was happy it was in my hands and not in the back of the net. Thank god for Wilson, I just wanted to kiss him.”

Hellstern has a great deal of affection for the defenders in front of him.

“The defense has been a season-long story,” said the Penn-bound Hellstern. “We got two goals from two defenders and we got a goal stopped on the line by another. The entire team played great; I think we’re going to remember this, all of us, for a long time.”

PHS head coach Sutcliffe won’t soon forget what his 2009 team accomplished.

“It was a lot of hard work that came to fruition, just one game at a time, just one training session at a time; you build slowly,” said Sutcliffe, who has guided the Little Tigers for the last 13 years.

“Our guys have a tremendous amount of talent. They also have a tremendous amount of maturity and a great understanding for the game and they proved it.”

The Little Tigers utilized that maturity in weathering the storm in the second half.

“We have been through that before; at halftime, we mentioned the South game in the county final,” said Sutcliffe, referring to PHS’s 2-1 win over WW/P-S in the Mercer County Tournament title game which saw the Little Tigers hang on for dear life after taking a 2-0 halftime lead. “We knew full well that Millburn would come out and put on a lot of pressure but we had kind of been there, done that in that sense.”

As has been the case all fall long, the PHS defense handled the pressure. “The defense is amazing; they do it all for us,” asserted Sutcliffe, singling out Urias’ second half clearance as one of the plays of the game and the season.

“Wilson had the intelligence to make that play. We teach our defenders to get on the line when the goalie has to commit himself and, lo and behold, look what he does. He gets on there and he clears the game-tying goal and preserves the championship for us. That’s been him all season, what an unsung hero.”

Senior midfielder Gershkovich was another hero for the Little Tigers with his two assists.

“Evan is an amazing player,” said Sutcliffe. “His still balls are one of the best parts of his game. He hit two penalties against Hun [in the MCT semis], he hits a great still ball.”

Sutcliffe, for his part, began to have a great feeling about his 2009 team in mid-October.

“I began to feel as though we had something special when we got into the MCT and we really started to play well,” recalled Sutcliffe.

“The first two rounds were not easy and we played well and then we got into the semis against Hun. We showed such resilience and I thought, you know, anything can happen. We could win it all and the players thought so too, they were just so excited.”

With a grin plastered on his face, Bryant was more than excited to end his soccer career with a state title.

“It is a great to go off on a win,” said Bryant. “We have been talking about it, usually you go off on a loss and it leaves a bad feeling in your throat. This is just great to go off on a high note.”

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