November 25, 2020

Unable to Overcome Early Deficit Against Ridge, PHS Girls’ Soccer Falls 3-0 in Sectional Quarters

SEEING RED: Princeton High girls’ soccer player Vanessa Ponce, center, slots the ball up the field last Wednesday as fourth-seeded PHS hosted fifth-seeded Ridge in the Central West C (Group 4) sectional quarterfinals. PHS fell 3-0 to the Red Devils, the eventual sectional champion, to end the fall with a 9-3-1 record. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Moments after the Princeton High girls’ soccer team fell 3-0 to Ridge in the Central West C (Group 4) sectional quarterfinals last Wednesday, several players huddled together for a group cry on the frigid afternoon.

In a season that almost didn’t happen due to COVID-19 concerns, the PHS players developed deep bonds as their time together became a daily highlight in a difficult fall.

“We were such a close group of kids and coaches, this team means a lot to me,” said PHS head coach Val Rodriguez, whose squad ended the fall with a 9-3-1 record.

“I have known some of the seniors for eight years, some of them I coached back when they were in fifth grade. Some of the families, I have been coaching for 12 years now. So this team coming together with COVID and all of that, losing the game hurts. But it hurts differently this year because now the one thing that we are in-person for and feel genuine about is over.”

The fourth-seeded Tigers dug an early hole as they hosted fifth-seeded Ridge, falling behind 2-0 with 28:31 left the first half on a chilly day which saw temperatures hovering in the high 30s.

“Right at the whistle, we were looking OK; we felt pretty comfortable in the game,” said Rodriguez, whose squad brought a six-game winning streak into the clash against Ridge.

“Based on how we played last Friday against Steinert (a 1-0 win on November 13), I thought we could compete just the same today. They have tremendous speed. You make one mistake and No. 25 (Abby McCrea) and No. 14 (Payton Uhrig) are down the field. I know that their corners were going to be good. They scored two corner goals and one fast break goal. I think that is what it comes down to.”

PHS never could get into an offensive rhythm as it was shut out for only the second time this season.

“Going with a 2-0 deficit into half, everybody says that is the deadliest score the other way but at the same time when you are playing a good team, it is hard to dig back out of it,” said Rodriguez.

“We didn’t do a good job of finding the width, we didn’t do a good job of getting behind their defense. We allowed them to squish us and compress us in the middle and we didn’t solve that.”

While the final result stung, Rodriguez was proud of what PHS accomplished this fall.

“I think the season was extremely successful, we competed really, really well in the CVC (Colonial Valley Conference) and we had some highlight wins,” said Rodriguez, whose squad posted victories over such tough foes as Robbinsville (2-0 on October 10) and Notre Dame (4-3 in overtime on October 14) in addition to the late season win over Steinert.

“We played great and scored a lot of goals this year. We had ups and downs with injuries. Poor Sarah Granozio and poor Greta Bush to lose their season to injuries and Moji Ayodele, our goalie, was in and out all season.”

Rodriguez credited her group of seniors with providing a major spark on and off the field.

“They have contributed that X-factor of team chemistry, bonding, passion and hard work,” said Rodriguez, whose Class of 2021 included Lily Gabriello, Vanessa Ponce, Grace Heilbronn, Christina Tkac, Phoebe Frankel, Ava Thomson, Ashley Tam, and Bush.

“We had talent in the senior class, don’t get me wrong but there is much more than that that goes into high school sports and they embodied that for us. They really care about one another as individuals.”

Looking ahead, the Tigers have plenty of talent remaining in the program but Rodriguez knows that the senior class is leaving a big void.

“We have Sophia Lis coming back and Megan Rougas as well as some of the talented freshmen,” said Rodriguez, whose returning players include freshman Alysse Kiesewetter, junior Naomi Bazar, junior Ayodele, sophomore Granozio, freshman Casey Serxner, sophomore Catie Samaan, freshman Holly Howes, junior Lis, and junior Rougas.

“But you don’t replace a Vanessa Ponce. She is somebody who comes in and trains in the morning and then she comes back for practice in the afternoon. She is so dedicated and so passionate and you just don’t see that. I couldn’t replace a Greta Bush out there, the speed that she has, the energy that she brings, and the passion. You can’t replace things like that. You can’t coach things like that. There are some special players in that senior class that I will never get to coach again.”