It didn’t look like Chase Ealy was going to be able to help the Princeton High boys’ soccer team last week as it pursued the Group III state title.
The sophomore midfielder’s temperature spiked to 104 as he was hit with a viral illness and woke up in the hospital on Wednesday, the day PHS was facing Moorestown in the Group III state semis.
Ealy did get released and was a spectator that evening as PHS topped Moorestown 2-0 to earn its first trip to the state championship game since winning the title in 2009.
On Saturday afternoon, Ealy was in uniform as PHS took on defending state champion and undefeated Ramapo in the championship game at The College of New Jersey.
Looking pale and wan as he warmed up, Ealy was hoping to come off the bench. “I came into the game with the expectation of playing as much as coach would play me,” said Ealy.
“I couldn’t handle as much as I normally could but I was going to give it my all. I just did what I could. I couldn’t run as much as I usually do.”
With PHS trailing Ramapo 1-0 early in the second half, Ealy was subbed into the game and made an immediate impact. Using his speed and guile, Ealy corralled several balls in the offensive end for PHS.
Then with just under 18 minutes left in the half, Ealy danced the ball around a Ramapo defender and launched a cross that Scott Bechler headed home to knot the game at 1-1.
“I knew that I had boys in the box that I can always look for,” recalled Ealy. “As long as I toss up an accurate ball, I know I will have someone on the post and they were there for me.”
At the other end of the cross, senior defender Bechler finally converted on a move he has been trying for a while.
“All year I have been crashing back post hoping that one is going to slip through and finally it did,” said Bechler.
The Little Tigers kept up the heat after the tally, generating several chances, including a rocket by Bechler that was just fisted over the crossbar by Ramapo goalie Will Shiel, as the game escalated into a pulsating hand-to-hand battle with the Raiders hanging on for dear life as PHS threw everything it could at them.
The combatants ended up knotted at 1-1 after regulation play and 20 minutes of overtime with the teams being crowned as co-champions under NJSIAA rules.
While Bechler and his teammates desperately wanted the title for themselves, they were proud of their achievement as they ended the season at 18-3-1.
“No one likes to share;” Zach [Halliday] said before overtime, “I never liked sharing since I was a kid and I am not about to start sharing now,” said Bechler with a laugh.
“Looking back on it, we are kind of sorry right now because we thought we could have won it. I guess they could have won it too so sharing is alright.”
Early on it looked like Ramapo was going to make it two straight titles as it took a 1-0 lead with 23:09 left in the first half, displaying some imperious form in the process.
Even though PHS trailed 1-0 at intermission, the team was confident it could pull out the title.
“I think we were really confident coming off halftime,” said Ealy. “We have come back from being down before. We know if we get our heads in it, we can win every game. After working all season, we really weren’t going to let this game go.”
Ealy provided some sparkling work once he was inserted into the contest. “I just knew I could really help the guys,” said Ealy.
“I love to push the ball forward and that’s what we strive to do on attack. I came in and I just tried to morally pick everybody up as much as I could. They were already there, physically and mentally.”
PHS head coach Wayne Sutcliffe thought his team gave its all, mentally and physically.
“It was two good teams, I thought we really had the better in terms of possession, a higher percentage of possession, and certainly a lot more quality chances during the run of play,” said Sutcliffe, whose team outshot Ramapo 17-4 on the day.
“Ramapo had one goal off of a restart, I think most of their top chances came from restarts. I just thought that our urgency and our experience and our quality just came through in the second half.”
Sutcliffe lauded the special urgency that Ealy displayed as he made the most of his limited minutes.
“He was in the hospital for three days and he found a way to recover,” said Sut-cliffe.
“He was with us at the state semifinal on Wednesday evening with none of us ever thinking he would be back on this season. He turned up at practice the other day and he felt pretty good. We inserted him into training yesterday, kept a close eye on him, and he was fantastic. So we felt if we can get him on for 10-to-15 minutes, he could make a difference and he did. What a contribution with his commitment and his quality.”
Senior defender Bechler displayed his special qualities all day long. “Throughout the 100 minutes, Scott didn’t make a mistake,” maintained Sutcliffe.
“Certainly to tie the game with a header is fantastic. Just having the wherewithal to be on the other end of that delivery from Chase and he hit it with such authority. And then he could have won the game with that volley, credit to Ramapo’s keeper for just pulling one out of his pocket.”
Although PHS didn’t win the game, Sutcliffe is happy to have a piece of the title in his pocket.
“My brother’s team Moorestown High had a share in 2000 and in 1997 they won it; it was just a little different but it is still a state championship,” said Sutcliffe, whose team topped brother Mike Sutcliffe and his Moorestown side 2-0 in the Group III semis on Wednesday evening to punch its ticket to the title game.
“It is still a state championship and I am so proud of our guys. It has been a really demanding season with the hurricane and the injuries and the postseason. The postseason tournament was very demanding on all of us. I am so proud of them. There are 12 seniors and they gave us everything we had.”
Sutcliffe is not surprised that his players were able to meet those demands.
“First of all, the whole team is basically full-time soccer players,” said Sutcliffe, who has been guiding the PHS program for 17 years.
“It is in their blood, they love it. They are fortunate enough to grow up in a great soccer environment. They are so passionate about the Princeton shirt. These seniors when they were freshmen, they were here and we won it too. With that said, they tried to just make their mark. Beyond that, off the field, they are all very close. I think that goes a long way for them.”
Bechler, who didn’t have a shirt for the title game in 2009 as a freshman, enjoyed making his way back to the championship summit.
“I am playing with all of my best friends; I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out,” said Bechler.
“I was on the team as a freshman. I was rostered but I didn’t have a jersey so I was over in the corner playing some juggling with the other kids who weren’t playing. I was wearing Princeton warm-ups. Ever since that year, I was thinking if I was a little bit better I could have had that ring. It has always been about getting one of my own and now I finally have the chance.”
For Ealy, who moved to the area from South Carolina this summer, getting the chance to be part of the PHS team has been special.
“I would tell you that it is the legacy; it is the history in the school and the soccer,” said Ealy, reflecting on the qualities that set the program apart. “You want to represent it and make every last wearer of the shirt proud.”
And by overcoming illness to help PHS earn a title, Ealy certainly did his shirt proud.