Val Rodriguez (nee Davison) played an integral part in the success of the Princeton High girls’ soccer team from 2000-03.
Starring as a tough and skilled sweeper, Rodriguez helped the program earn Colonial Valley Conference titles and reach the finals of the both the Central Jersey Group III sectional and the Mercer County Tournament.
After producing an all-conference career at Richard Stockton College, Rodriguez returned to her high school alma mater, assisting longtime head coach Greg Hand.
Now, Rodriguez is primed to assume a critical role in maintaining the winning tradition of the program, taking over as head coach in the wake of Hand’s retirement.
“I have been looking forward to this day for a while,” said Rodriguez, reflecting on ascending to the top job after six seasons as an assistant.
“I enjoyed working with coach Hand and I learned a lot from him. My goal was to be the next head coach and start a new era in PHS girls’ soccer.”
With Rodriguez’s PHS background and experience with the current players, the Little Tigers have picked up where they left off last year when they posted a 14-4 record.
“I think compared to coach Hand, I won’t do things much differently,” said Rodriguez, whose team opens regular season play by hosting Trenton High on September 5.
“It will be business as usual. We have some great young female assistant coaches and we are all very competitive-minded. It has been a smooth transition. The respect is there; the team work is there.”
The scoring punch is there for PHS with the return of senior striker Shannon Pawlak, who tallied 28 goals last season.
“Shannon is our go-to target player,” said Rodriguez, noting that junior Serena DiBianco and junior Gabrielle Deitch may also see time at forward.
“We are looking for her to dish balls and to do scoring. She is fit, focused, and did a lot over the offseason.”
In the midfield, the Little Tigers boast a lot of talent in junior Hayley Bodden, junior Taylor Lis, sophomore Zoe Tesone, Deitch, and junior Sasha Ryder.
“Hayley, Taylor, and Zoe are big girls and good distributors,” said Rodriguez. “Gabby and Sasha will be on the outside.”
Rodriguez is looking for Bodden, in particular, to have a very good season. “I have never seen Hayley more focused,” said Rodriguez.
“She is fit; she is looking heavily at the college level and that is showing through in her play. I am expecting her to win the 50/50 balls like she did last year, to dish, and score some goals.”
Another Pawlak sister, senior Emily, should spearhead the PHS defense. “Emily is looking good; she and Shannon worked hard in the offseason,” said Rodriguez, who will also use junior Maya Sarafin on the back line. “She is good at organizing things in the back. She has a good voice and is a good decision-maker.”
Junior goalie Rachel Eberhart has emerged as a solid last line of defense for the Little Tigers.
“Rachel is very good technically,” said Rodriguez. “We are working on her decision-making, communication, and knowing when to come out.”
In Rodriguez’s view, PHS knows what it takes to do well this fall. “This team can maintain and build on recent success,” asserted Rodriguez.
“There is no wasted time, we are here for business. It is a focused group. Looking at this team, it feels like we have played together for years. There is already a tight bond.”