Even though the Princeton High girls’ soccer team led Colts Neck 1-0 last week in the Central Jersey Group III sectional championship game, PHS certainly wasn’t in control of the contest.
Underdog Colts Neck, the eighth-seed in the sectional, put the No. 2 Little Tigers under fire through much of the second half, using its speed to generate a number of scoring opportunities.
PHS senior defender Madison Luther acknowledged that things got a little dicey along the Little Tiger back line.
“It was definitely a storm, that is the right word,” said Luther, reflecting on the second half of the game.
“They kept at it, they are very fast. We have to make sure that we position ourselves all the time to get ready for them. Katie Carduner is our quarterback and we have Dana Smith back there, sliding for us left and right. Sticking with them works, that’s what gets us there.”
The PHS defense held the fort, keeping Colts Neck from breaking through as it earned a 1-0 victory and the first sectional title in the 21-year tenure of head coach Greg Hand.
The win improved PHS to 16-2-1 and earned it a date with South Jersey champion Moorestown in the state Group III semis on November 28 at Toms River North with the winner advancing to the championship game on December 2 at The College of New Jersey.
For Luther and her teammates, surviving the roller-coaster ride to pull out the title left some special memories.
“It is the first time for all of us,” said Luther. “All game, it was back and forth, even with the goal it didn’t feel like we were up. You never know with the Shore Conference; they are unexpected. We were really excited; we were a good kind of nervous.”
Luther’s athletic versatility has helped her become a very good defender for the Little Tigers.
“I play basketball and lacrosse so I know defense well,” said Luther. “Since I am not the fastest, I can shadow and watch them. I am better at that.”
It certainly helps PHS to have star senior goalie Lauren Ullmann as its last line of defense.
“Lauren is a lifesaver,” asserted Luther of the netminder who made eight saves in the win over Colts Neck.
“She is always there, she is always talking, constantly directing everyone. It is very nice to have that. Having her back there is a very safe cushion, you have someone respectable and an extra barrier to protect.”
In Luther’s view, the Little Tigers gained extra motivation from two setbacks, an early season loss to Robbinville and getting eliminated in the semifinals of the Mercer County Tournament by Pennington on penalty kicks after playing the Red Raiders to a 0-0 draw through 100 minutes.
“After our second loss to Robbinsville, ‘we were like OK, this can’t happen,’” recalled Luther.
“The Pennington game didn’t even feel like losing, they are such a great team. We lost 4-0 to them last year. A lot of the new kids heard that and said let’s not lose. Keeping up with them made it so much better.”
PHS head coach Hand, for his part, is proud of the way his squad has taken care of business after its 2-2 start.
“It just seems that we managed to do enough of the things that we need to do throughout the 80-minutes to hold the opponents down a little and create opportunities,” said Hand.
“There is no magic to it, it is just the fact that we have a really hardworking group who take themselves pretty seriously when they have to and put their all into every single day.”
In the victory over Colts Neck, PHS followed that blueprint. “I thought we possessed really well in the first 20 minutes of the game, the second 20 after we scored, I think we actually came a little bit unglued, not taking care of the ball as well,” recalled Hand.
“We continued to work hard through the whole game and that carried into the second half. At the end, you could see the fight that was in us; we weren’t going to let anything get by.”
Hand acknowledges that he didn’t see such an ending for his team when it first convened for training this summer.
“If you asked me on August 16th, I wouldn’t have suggested that this was going to be where we were,” said Hand.
“But to take guidance from somebody like John Wooden — he says he never went into a game, even if he was a big underdog, thinking he was going to lose. But he never went in, thinking he was going to win.”
In Luther’s view, the team’s success is a product of making the most of everyday and not worrying about the big picture.
“We didn’t set any goals for ourselves,” said Luther. “At the beginning of the year, we didn’t even know if we were going to have a winning record at all, now we are 16-2-1. No one expected us to do things like this and get this far. I think the fact that we didn’t have these goals, we had nothing to lose and that just pushed us more.”