Waging Fierce Battle with Hunterdon Central, PHS Boys’ Soccer Loses 1-0 in Sectional Final
DEVIL OF A TIME: Princeton High boys’ soccer player Nick Petruso, left, boots the ball up the field last Saturday as top-seeded PHS battled second-seeded Hunterdon Central in the Central West Group 4 sectional final. Senior star Petruso and the Tigers generated a number of scoring chances but were thwarted as the visiting Red Devils pulled out a 1-0 win. The defeat left PHS with a final record of 9-3-1. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
A vivid memory of Nick Petruso’s freshman season on the Princeton High boys’ soccer team in 2017 came when he helped the Tigers edge Hunterdon Central 1-0 in the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional final on a bone-chilling November afternoon.
“That game was extremely difficult,” said Petruso. “We won in overtime.”
So when top-seeded PHS hosted second-seeded Hunterdon Central in the Central West Group 4 sectional final last Saturday, Petruso wasn’t surprised to see the Red Devils put the Tigers under intense pressure in the early stages of the contest.
“Those kids came out strong in the beginning, it was a battle,” said senior striker Petruso. “We made some tough tackles, they were strong.”
With its strong defense stepping up, PHS weathered the storm on the pleasant 60 degree day, thwarting Hunterdon Central as the foes were knotted in a scoreless draw at halftime.
After Hunterdon Central scored to break the ice with 36:48 left in the second half, PHS responded by generating a number of strong chances but couldn’t break through as it ultimately fell 1-0.
“As the second half went on and closer to the end, we had a lot of chances that we could have put away but we just didn’t,” said Petruso, who generated a blistering shot on a set piece off of a free kick early in the second half and later nearly scored on a header coming from a corner kick.
“In the second half, I felt like we were going to get something but nothing happened. They are extremely strong in the back four, they are very good.”
After the final whistle, the Tiger players sat on their bench, staring ahead blankly, coming to terms with a defeat that left them with a final record of 9-3-1.
“Since preseason our goal was to win sectionals so this is pretty devastating,” said Petruso. “We made it this far so that is impressive.”
Dealing with an early season leg injury that caused him to miss time and then sitting out two weeks due to COVID rules, Petruso was happy to make it to postseason play.
“I was out for like a month, between my leg and COVID; that break definitely helped my leg recover,” said Petruso.
“I got to play in the last three games which I was happy about. I wanted to play in postseason.”
PHS head coach Wayne Sutcliffe sensed that his squad was going to have to hold the fort in the early stages of the contest against Hunterdon Central.
“Our objective was to get through the first 20 minutes, if we were level after 20, we have put ourselves in a good place,” said Sutcliffe.
“In the latter part of the first half, we had more of the ball. I thought we had the better chances on the day.”
In reflecting on the narrow defeat, Sutcliffe rued his team’s missed opportunities.
“It is the little things, their goalie made a couple of nice stops,” said Sutcliffe.
“We had a nice chance on Nick’s set piece and on a couple of our long corners. It was what it was in that regard. We created chances, we just didn’t convert one.”
In Sutcliffe’s view, PHS made the most out of its chance to play in a fall impacted by COVID concerns.
“It was a dream season in a lot of ways,” asserted Sutcliffe. “We were unsure over the summer about what was going to happen and then it wasn’t until September 8 that we heard that we were going to have a season. We had to really scramble. All credit to our players and our coaching staff to just do it one day at a time. We worked through the stops and starts.”
While that hard work didn’t result in a sectional crown, the Tigers players can take pride in what they did achieve in terms of wins and team camaraderie.
“We took a three-way share of the CVC (Colonial Valley Conference) title, we got to a sectional final for Group 4, which is only the second one in school history, in a game that could have gone either way,” said Sutcliffe.
“But more importantly, the way the team grew and the level of trust and honesty in the team, that is what got us here. We have good talent but we were able to find a level of trust, honesty, and quality.”
The squad’s large contingent of seniors helped spark that growth.
“We had 14 seniors, nine of whom start; they are a special group in the sense that they dealt with many things that other teams have not had to deal with,” said Sutcliffe, whose Class of 2021 included Jared Bell, Rafa Davis Grandi, Andrew DeLuca, Eduardo Kertesz Kok, Youri Laoui, Ian Pompliano, Alex Milley, James Novak, Will Novak, Dylan Parker, Ethan Parker, Simon Sheppard, and Rakuyo Tamada in addition to Petruso.
“They were shut down last March. They weren’t sure they were going to have a season. We had two shutdowns during the season. Credit to them for their perseverance and really making the season special. For all of those reasons, they can put themselves in the elite class of teams that we have had here.”
Getting Petruso back in time for the sectional was a big plus for PHS.
“It was such a key, he had a major impact after his reintroduction,” said Sutcliffe of Petruso, who will be playing at the college level for Franklin and Marshall.
“He scored some big goals for us; just his presence and experience made a difference.”
Sutcliffe, for his part, believes the program is poised to do some big things in the future.
“We have some really good young players coming back to us,” said Sutcliffe.
“We had a pool of 36 players in the program this year and we worked together training every day. We didn’t have a JV team per se so we really had a chance to develop and help them that we would not have had in any given year. It was a fantastic experience.”
Petruso and his classmates enjoyed a special experience over their four years with the program.
“We were undefeated our freshman year and ever since then we wanted to come out and win states our senior year,” said Petruso.
“Unfortunately with COVID, we didn’t get to do it, but we got to the sectional final. We had a pretty good season. We had some upset losses against Hopewell and Robbinsville but we learned from that and had a run in the tournament. We were happy with it.”