John Blair quickly assumed the role of set-up man for Princeton High boys’ soccer team this fall, picking up three assists in the first two games of the season.
But with PHS clinging to a 1-0 lead against visiting Trenton High early in the second half last week, the senior midfielder displayed his finishing skills, getting free on a breakaway and calmly slotting the ball past the Tornado goalie.
“I saw the defender take a big touch; I went out and pressured him,” said Blair, reflecting on his tally in the September 17 contest. “I took a touch by him and just passed it around the goalkeeper.”
Blair’s goal opened the floodgates as the Little Tigers added three unanswered goals in a 12-minute span on the way to a 6-0 win.
“It gave us some motivation,” said Blair in assessing the impact of his tally. “We shut their offense down which really put the pressure on their defense. They lost their mental focus and we took advantage of that.”
For the Little Tigers, the lopsided win represented a major step forward at both ends of the field.
“It was the first clean sheet of the season which is a good thing; it is always our main goal,” said Blair.
“The phrase goes ‘offense wins games, defense wins championships’ so that is a good step in the right direction. For us to score six goals is also great. It is the most goals we have scored in a game so far this year and for there to be six different scorers, that is a good spread.”
While Blair enjoyed finding the back of the net in the victory over Trenton, he focuses on being a playmaker for PHS.
“My main goal is to get it to Kevin Halliday,” said Blair, referring to PHS star striker Halliday, who had 23 goals last year.
“All three of my assists were to Kevin so we are connecting pretty well. If we can continue to do that all season, we will be good.”
Having worked his way up in the PHS pecking order from reserve to key starter, Blair is savoring his final campaign with the program.
“I love being on the field, there is nothing like it, just the rush that I get and being able to play with my teammates is really cool,” said Blair, who certainly enjoyed himself last Thursday, tallying two goals and two assists as PHS routed Robbinsville 7-0 to improve to 3-1.
As a team co-captain along with Halliday, Blair prides himself on maintaining a cool head on the field.
“I try to keep the underclassmen’s heads up; they don’t have the experience that Kevin and I have because there are only three returning starters on the field along with Laurenz [Reimitz] in goal,” said Blair.
“We are really inexperienced so when they make a mistake, a lot of them will put their heads down so my goal is to keep their heads up so that instead of making another mistake they can fix it the next time.”
PHS head coach Wayne Sutcliffe believes that the win over Trenton shows that his squad is heading in the right direction.
“We are finding our form,” said Sutcliffe. “We are still a long way off but I think we are going to be fine. I am very happy with the game today, getting the first clean sheet in the home opener, it was great.”
Sutcliffe is very happy with the play he is getting from Blair. “John is a playmaker; he is our creative midfielder,” asserted Sutcliffe.
“Credit to him for coming out and really getting a quality goal early in the second half. I think we got some confidence after that second goal.”
Having a skilled finisher like Halliday at striker gives PHS a lot of confidence.
“Kevin is a guy who brings three years of being on the field” said Sutcliffe of Halliday, who scored a goal in the win over Trenton and added two more in the victory over Robbinsville to give him six on the season.
“He is getting in; he is finding his moments. We have just tried to get him up in and around and as close to the goal as we can.”
Junior star Chase Ealy produced a big moment late in the first half of the Trenton game, streaking down the side and blasting in the first goal of the contest.
“Chase on the flank is our priority; we always try to get to spring him from the left flank and get him in where he is most dangerous,” said Sutcliffe. “This all started last year. His first goal was great, he had a great game.”
PHS got a great game from his defense, which features new starters in senior Dalton Sekelsky together with sophomores Dwight Donis and Edgar Morales.
“The emphasis was to stay a little better organized; we found ourselves just chasing too much and being a little disorganized,” said Sutcliffe, whose team hosts Hamilton on September 26, plays at Harrison on September 28, and then hosts Steinert on October 1.
“Dalton is a first-year starter but his first three games have been fantastic.
I think with Dwight and Edgar in the center of the park, all credit to them, they played well. It was Laurenz’s first shutout of the year so credit to him too.”
Blair, for his part, believes that defending Group III state co-champion PHS can be a title contender once again, even with heavy roster turnover.
“We have seven new starting faces, it is a big number,” said Blair. “We definitely have the individual talent, so if we are able to begin to work together as a team as we showed today, we could make it as far as we did last year.”