The Little Tigers, who tied Ramapo 1-1 last December in the state Group III finals, lost their whole starting backline to graduation.
For Dalton Sekelsky, who moved into the starting center half position this fall for his senior campaign, there were some nervous moments early on.
“I thought there would be a little bit of trouble,” said Sekelsky. “We saw that in the first week of preseason in the summer but we have pulled it together and we are pretty solid.”
Last Thursday, Sekelsky and the PHS defense showed that it is becoming more than solid as the Little Tigers blanked Steinert 2-0. It was the fifth straight shutout of the Little Tigers, who last surrendered a goal against Hightstown on September 10 in the first half of a 2-1 win.
In Sekelsky’s view, the clean sheet against Steinert was another step forward in the growth of the new defensive unit.
“It has been a good development for them coming into this season,” said Sekelsky.
“They are pretty big kids. They are pretty good with the ball, they don’t lose it too much.”
As the veteran member of the backline group, Sekelsky has taken extra responsibility on his shoulders. “I try to keep everybody focused in the midfield and the back,” noted Sekelsky.
The Little Tigers had an extra motivation to win the game in the wake of PHS christening its new turf field in late September.
“We wanted to win this game and keep a tradition going on this new turf,” said Sekelsky. “None of the soccer teams or field hockey has lost on it yet.”
PHS head coach Wayne Sutcliffe knew that his team faced a fight with the Spartans as the teams have traditionally played hard-fought battles.
“It is always a good test, always a very close game,” said Sutcliffe.
“Last year, I think it was 1-0 us in the second overtime. Credit to Steinert and their play, I just thought we found a way to win today.”
With the game knotted in a scoreless tie at halftime, PHS ratcheted up its intensity over the last 40 minutes of the contest.
“I felt like we got a little more familiar with things as the game went on,” said Sutcliffe.
“We pressed on; we were able to find one another better. We were able to get into the front third and hit the final pass a little better and find one another a little better.”
PHS broke the ice when freshman Andrew Goldsmith tallied his first career goal with 16:50 remaining in regulation.
“There was a good bit of play that preceded the goal,” said Sutcliffe. “Nick Halliday hit a good square ball to him and credit to Andrew for hitting a first-time, left-footed shot off the post. He will remember that for a long time.”
The combination of seniors Kevin Halliday and John Blair produced some good play in tallying the second goal as Blair chased down a ball and then Halliday volleyed a shot that deflected off a Steinert defender and found the back of the net.
“Kevin’s mentality in and around the area is to let it fly and take some chances and that is what happens sometimes,” said Sutcliffe, whose team topped Ewing 4-0 last Thursday to improve to 7-1-1 with Blair contributing a goal and two assists and Halliday adding a goal. “But credit to John Blair for really doing the hard work prior to that, that really put us in a good spot.”
Sutcliffe likes the mentality his rebuilt defense has been showing as it has now gone nearly a month without yielding a score.
“We keep working hard to improve on that; we are fine-tuning things,” said Sutcliffe. “I am very proud of another clean sheet. It is a lot of progress.”
In Sutcliffe’s view, Sekelsky’s improvement is a big reason for the success of the defense.
“Dalton has been fantastic, he just keeps getting better and better every week,” said Sutcliffe. “His feet are getting better, his touch is getting better. He is just reading the game and the little nuances of the game.
Junior goalie Laurenz Reimitz has also been a bright spot, getting better and better with a year of starting experience under his belt.
“What a great stride Laurenz had made; all credit to him, he has worked so hard,” said Sutcliffe.
“In training, we have really emphasized hitting a lot of flighted balls into him and putting him under pressure. He is doing well in commanding the box and communicating with the back four. He has put himself in a position where we not only trust him, but we can relay on him in a big game. I am so happy about that.”
With his team riding an 8-game unbeaten streak, Sutcliffe is very happy with how things are going.
“We are so focused on the little things on the field,” said Sutcliffe, whose team plays at WW/P-N on October 12 before hosting Nottingham on October 15.
“The record is one thing and that is the most important thing in the end. In terms of our quality, we are playing better soccer. We have been able to keep the ball primarily and have been better in and around the penalty area.”
Sekelsky, for his part, believes things are going to end well for the Little Tigers this fall.
“I am pretty sure we can go for a state championship again,” said Sekelsky. “This is how we started out last season and we are going in a good direction.”