Freshman Gillespie Enjoys Special Home Debut, Tallying 1st Goal as PU Men’s Soccer Tops Rider
FEELING AT HOME: Princeton University men’s soccer player Walker Gillespie heads the ball last Wednesday evening against Rider University. Freshman forward Gillespie enjoyed a memorable home debut, tallying a goal and an assist to help Princeton edge Rider 2-1. Princeton, which dropped to 1-2 with a 2-0 loss at Loyola last Friday, plays at Monmouth on September 18 and at FDU on September 21 before hosting Drexel on September 24. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
Walker Gillespie didn’t see himself being an impact player as he made his home debut for the Princeton University men’s soccer team last Wednesday evening when it hosted Rider.
“I really wasn’t thinking I was going to play that much today,” said freshman forward Gillespie, a 6’3, 185-pound native of Charlotte, N.C. “Once I got in there I just wanted to give 100 percent.”
Gillespie got on the pitch at Roberts Stadium in the first half but didn’t get to play many balls as the Tigers were stymied by the Broncs for much of the first half as the local rivals played to a scoreless draw heading into intermission.
“We weren’t really getting behind well in the first half so at halftime we decided to make more runs in behind,” said Gillespie. “Once we started to make runs behind, the game really opened up for us.”
Early in the second half, Gillespie opened the scoring by making a sprint into the box, taking a pass from Cole Morokhovich and pushing the ball into the back of the net with 40:59 remaining in regulation.
“I saw the ball come in low and hard and I knew the keeper was going to have a tough time dealing with it,” recalled Gillespie.
“I just got in the right spot to take a touch and just poke it in. We kept getting opportunities after that one.”
Less than two minutes later, Gillespie generated another scoring opportunity, taking the ball into the box on a 2-on-1 and then sliding a slick pass to Kevin O’Toole, who knocked it home to give the Tigers a 2-0 lead.
“I saw Kevin out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t tell if he was on or off,” said Gillespie, who was later named the Ivy League Rookie of the Week for his performance.
“I looked over and made sure he was on and when the keeper decided to come out early, I just slotted it to him.”
From there, Princeton had to hold the fort as Rider scored a goal with 30:07 left in the half and put the pressure on for the rest of the contest.
“It definitely got tough after that second goal but we held out,” said Gillespie.
In reflecting on his transition to college soccer, Gillespie acknowledged that there have been some tough moments.
“The biggest challenge is technical ability and how fast practice is compared to what I was used to in high school and development academy,” said Gillespie.
“I think it is definitely deserving so far that I am coming off the bench, I haven’t proved myself yet. I am working on it.”
With the Tigers needing a spark heading into the second half, Princeton head coach Jim Barlow turned to Gillespie.
“The idea at halftime was to put some pace up front and Walker is probably one of our fastest guys,” said Barlow.
“He played wide in the first half and we told him to go along along the back line in the second half; we wanted the option to play behind, just to stretch them out a little bit to help our ability to pass in front of them.”
In Barlow’s view, Gillespie has the ability to be a scoring threat for the Tigers.
“Walker has some great starting points in that he is big, strong, fast and he looks to go to goal,” added Barlow.
“He still has to polish things up a little bit from that standpoint. There is a lot to build on and hopefully this will help his confidence.”
In assessing his team’s performance against Rider, Barlow noted that the Tigers need to polish things up collectively.
“I thought in the first 15 minutes of the second half, we were really, really good,” said Barlow.
“After we got up 2-0, we struggled. We could tell that we haven’t figured out all of our responsibilities yet. We have got a lot of maturing to do.”
Barlow credited senior midfielders Ben Martin and Danny Hampton with providing some mature play.
“I thought Ben and Danny really kept it together,” said Barlow.“They put out fires everywhere and everyone battled hard.”
Going forward, the Tigers face an uphill battle over the next few weeks, dealing with a tough schedule and having several players sidelined by injury.
“We said to the guys all week, we are not where we want to be soccer wise, we are not where we want to be health wise, and we are not where we want to be fitness wise,” said Barlow, whose team dropped to 1-2 with a 2-0 loss at Loyola last Friday and plays at Monmouth on September 18 and at FDU on September 21 before hosting Drexel on September 24.
“We still have to find ways to win games while we are getting there in all three. As we get guys healthy and as we get fit, we can figure out how we are going to be dangerous. We have still got to find ways to win so that was a good step forward.”
Gillespie, for his part, believes that Tigers will need to bring the resilience they showed against Rider to pick up wins.
“We are going to really have to tough it out and grind like we did tonight,” said Gillespie.
“We need to lock in defensively, win headers, win defensive battles, win one-vs-ones, and keep up the press like we did today.”