December 23, 2020

PHS Soccer Goalie Bell, PDS Girls’ Soccer Star Beal Get the Nod as Top Performers of Fall Campaign

ANSWERING THE BELL: Princeton High boys’ soccer goalie Jared Bell corrals the ball against Hunterdon Central in the Central West B Group 4 sectional final. Senior standout Bell made eight saves in the game in a losing cause as PHS fell 1-0. Bell’s brilliance in goal played a key role in the Tigers going 9-3-1 and getting to the final. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Jared Bell was primed to make some noise this fall for the Princeton High boys’ soccer team.

Coming off a superb campaign in 2019, senior goalie Bell was determined to speak up on the field in his final high school season.

“From my sophomore year to now, I have definitely developed as a communicator on this team,” said Bell, who posted 12 shutouts as a junior.

“It is really necessary for our back four and myself to give instructions to the middle third and the front third.”

With Bell calling the shots and producing some brilliant play in net, the PHS defensive unit didn’t waste any time this fall showing how stingy it was going to be, posting shutouts in the first two games with a 4-0 win over Hamilton West and a 3-0 triumph against Steinert. After a loss and a tie, the Tigers got back on track, winning five straight games with clean sheets in four of those wins.

In reflecting on his progress, Bell acknowledged that it took a while for him to get into a rhythm this fall.

“It is gradual, it is a process,” said Bell. “With COVID, it was a little tough to find training and games to play. I try to play as much as I can.”

Getting to play with a back four of fellow seniors James Novak, Ethan Parker, Dylan Parker, and Simon Sheppard, helped Bell feel a comfort level on the pitch.

“With all four of my defenders, I have been playing with them since I was 8 years old,” said Bell. “I have been best buddies with them for years.”

Bell saved his best for last in the Central West B Group 4 sectional tournament, making seven saves as top-seeded PHS defeated eighth-seeded Watchung Hills 2-0 in the quarterfinals and then coming up with six stops as the Tigers topped fifth-seeded Hightstown 5-0 in the semifinals. In a thrilling final against second-seeded Hunterdon Central, Bell played brilliantly in a 1-0 defeat, making eight saves and standing tall against a number of forays into the box by the Red Devils.

PHS head coach Wayne Sutcliffe appreciated having Bell as the last line of defense.

“Jared has been great; we have discussed some goals that we want to try to achieve as a team defensively,” said Sutcliffe. “He has taken an extra amount of responsibility.”

Over the course of the fall, Bell took on more responsibility when it came to leadership.

“His growth over the last three years as a player and his growth into being a leader helped us tremendously, especially this season,” said Sutcliffe, noting that Bell is a year-round player who also competes at the club level for Princeton FC.

“His verbal direction to the back four kept getting better as did his ability with his feet. He improved every week and every month at coming off the line to cut down angles and stop threats in close. Maybe the best example of that in the season was in the sectional final when in the second half, he made a stop, a one-versus-one that kept the score at 1-0 and kept us in the game.”

Bell’s excellence rubbed off on the club collectively. “It was invaluable in that your goalkeeper is arguably the most important player and through his hard work and his improvement, he gained a lot more confidence,” said Sutcliffe.

“He put a lot more confidence in the back four on front of him and our respective additional players on the field. With that dynamic, if you can give the 10 outfield players that confidence that your goalkeeper is reliable, you have a chance to win some big things.”

In helping PHS achieve that dynamic, Bell never stopped striving to excel.

“He just kept improving from sophomore year to junior year leading the CVC in shutouts with 12 and then senior leading it again,” said Sutcliffe. “That is a credit to Jared and his desire, his growth, and his maturity.”

Bell, for his part, had the desire to make the most out of his final high school campaign.

“We are just happy that we have a season; it was looking like we weren’t going to have one,” said Bell.

“Every minute we are on the field we are grateful. I feel this is really our year. This should be one of our biggest years as a program.”

For growing into a leader and becoming the linchpin of a stingy defense that carried PHS to a sectional final, Bell is the  choice as the Town Topics’ top male performer of the fall season.

COMING THROUGH: Princeton Day School girls’ soccer player Kelly Beal goes after the ball in a game this fall. Senior star forward Beal’s knack for scoring big goals helped PDS post a 10-1 record this season. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Top Female Performer

For Princeton Day School girls’ soccer star Kelly Beal, her performance in a 3-2 win over Bishop Eustace in mid-October proved to be a microcosm of how she came through this fall for the Panthers.

After being stymied for much of the game despite a number of forays down the flank, senior forward Beal notched the winning goal with 51 seconds left in the contest

“It was kind of difficult to get me the ball this game but it is just how it happened,” said Beal. 

“I think as the game went on, we started to gain a lot of momentum. Ava [Mattson] passed the ball inside and I made a quick move and I played it in the closest corner.”

Despite being the focus of opposing defenses all fall long, the shifty Beal found a way to score a number of key goals for PDS as the Panthers reeled off a 10-game winning streak after a season-opening loss to end up with a final record of 10-1.

Beal notched a goal in a 2-0 win over Hillsborough on October 3 that started the Panthers’ winning streak. A week later, she chipped in a pair of goals in a 6-1 win over local rival Hun. On October 23, she added a tally as PDS pulled away from Montgomery on a 5-1 triumph.

Perhaps Beal’s biggest goal of the fall came on November 7 when she found the back of the net to give PDS a 1-0 lead at powerhouse and defending state Group 4 champion Hunterdon Central, setting the tone in a 2-1 victory for the Panthers. Ending her career on a high note, Beal scored a goal in a 5-0 win at St. Rose on November 11 in the season finale.

PDS head coach Pat Trombetta praised Beal for showing her finishing touch in clutch moments this fall.

“She gives us that ability to find the net when we need a goal,” said Trombetta of Beal who tallied eight goals and four assists on the season.

“We rely on her heavily for that. She gets a lot of attention from teams. She is explosive with the ball at her feet and opens things up for other players. She is one of the biggest threats in Mercer County as far as I am concerned. She got big goals for us.”

Trombetta pointed to Beal’s goal against Hunterdon Central as a highlight of the season.

“Kelly got the first goal in that game and that was huge to be on the board first,” said Trombetta.

“That gave the girls a lot of confidence; they came right back and tied it up but then we scored again.”

For Beal and her classmates, this fall was about putting in a huge effort on a daily basis.

“I am taking it game by game; it is my senior year and it is the same with the other seniors,” said Beal.

“We are especially looking forward to giving it our all each game. Even in our practices, everybody just gives it their all. Coach T and our coaches push us to be our best.”

Beal’s propensity to be at her best in the clutch helped spark PDS to a memorable campaign and makes her the pick as the top female performer of the fall.

LEADING THE PACK: Princeton Day School girls’ cross country star Emily McCann displays her form in a race this fall. Freshman McCann made a stunning debut for PDS in 2020, finishing first in every race as the Panthers went 11-0 and won two Invitational events in the process. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Top Newcomers

Jaiden Johnson focused on soccer in his first two years at Princeton High, playing for the junior varsity boys’ squad.

But coming into this fall, Johnson decided to switch to football. While Johnson had never played the sport, even at the Pop Warner level, he did have it in his blood as his father, Marquis Johnson, is a 1994 PHS alum and star athlete for the Tigers who was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010.

“My dad played football, there is definitely genes there,” said Johnson.

“In the offseason, me and my dad worked our butts off to get the result. He pushed me as hard as I could. I gained about 15-20 pounds.”

Starting at wide receiver and defensive back, it didn’t take long for Johnson to make an impact in his new sport as he gathered in a 51-yard touchdown reception in the season opener for PHS’ only score in a 42-6 loss at Robbinsville.

Showing flashes of brilliance, Johnson also returned kickoffs for touchdowns against Bordentown and Scotch Plains. He also notched another TD catch against Haddon Township in the season finale.

PHS head coach Charlie Gallagher knew he had something special after Johnson’s debut against Robbinsville.

“Jaiden had a good return, he also played some great cornerback for the first time ever,” said Gallagher, whose squad went 1-5 this fall.

“He had great coverage. He is happy, he scored a big touchdown. He is a talented kid, he is a super nice kid. We are going to try to get him the ball more.”

With Johnson continuing to progress as the fall unfolded, Gallagher believes he can have a big impact on the pro game going forward.

“The best quality he has going for him is that he is extremely coachable; he wants to be better,” said Gallagher.

“I am going to need him to want his teammates be better, that will be important down the road. Somewhere along the line he is going to turn into a leader, even though it might be for a short period of time.

Heading into the final week of the season, Johnson felt that he had gotten better and better throughout his debut campaign.

“This is the fifth game. These past four games were learning games,” said Johnson.

“I am getting a lot more comfortable and hopefully I can take it a long way.”

Coming such a long way in his first football season for PHS, Johnson is the pick as the top male newcomer.

John Woodside wasn’t sure what he was getting when freshman Emily McCann showed up this fall to join the Princeton Day School girls’ cross country team.

“She had good workouts right away but nothing spectacular,” said PDS head coach Woodside in recalling his first impressions of McCann, who was transferring from the Wilberforce School.

Turning heads, McCann made a spectacular debut for the Panthers, placing first as PDS defeated Stuart, Rutgers Prep, and Hun in a season-opening quad meet.

That performance turned out to be a harbinger of things to come as McCann won every race she entered this fall, helping PDS post an 11-0 record.

One of McCann’s top efforts of the fall came on October 24 when she placed first in the Girls’ Varsity White race at the XC 7-on-7 Invitational at Thompson Park in Jamesburg. McCann clocked a time of 20:43 over the 5,000-meter course, 58 seconds faster than runner-up, Elyse Madigan of Somerville. McCann’s dominant performance set the tone as PDS had three other runners finish in the top seven,
taking first in the team standings at the event.

A week later, McCann led the Panthers to another big win, taking first as PDS triumphed in its Prep Invitational competing against Stuart, Pennington, Hun, Rutgers Prep, and Wilberforce.

In reflecting on McCann’s perfect season, Woodside cited her will to win as a key factor in her success.

“For her to go through the season and not be defeated by anybody was a testament to her competitiveness,” said Woodside, noting that the precocious freshman’s personal best this fall of 20:31 is the top time for a PDS girls’ runner in recent memory. “She had a very great season.”

Woodside sees great things ahead for McCann. “We are going to assess the season and talk about her preparation this year and then talk about how we are going to prepare for next year,” added Woodside.

McCann’s brilliance at the head of the pack as PDS produced an undefeated season earns her the nod as the leading female newcomer.

TACTICAL TALK: Princeton High School boys’ soccer head coach Wayne Sutcliffe instructs his players during the Central West B Group 4 sectional final. Guiding his players through challenges posed this fall by COVID-19, Sutcliffe led the Tigers to a 9-3-1 record and second place in the sectional. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Top Coaches

Wayne Sutcliffe sensed something special about his Princeton High boys’ soccer team as it hit the field in September to train for a season that almost wasn’t due to COVID-19 concerns.

“They are excited to be out there and the coaching staff is too,” said Sutcliffe.

“It was just so nice to see all of the players again this fall. It has been refreshing. It is just so great to be back with the team at Valley Road every day. We are very fortunate. Our guys have been fantastic. They are respectful of the guidelines and disciplined. I can’t say enough about how they are doing their part.”

Heading into regular season action, Sutcliffe was confident that the squad would make the most of the fall come what may.

“I would say that the No. 1 goal is that we want to enjoy being out there, that is an expectation that we have,” said Sutcliffe.

“We want to have a level of success that we can be proud of at the end, whatever that is. We also want our senior class to have a great season. We want to win the league and we want to win the section, those are the two trophies.”

After winning its first two games, PHS hit a rough spot in mid-October, losing 3-2 to Robbinsville and then going on a pause due to COVID rules before returning with a 3-3 tie against Allentown. The Tigers then caught fire, posting five straight wins, outscoring its foes 22-1 with four shutouts in that stretch.

Ending the regular season with a 1-0 loss to Hopewell Valley in a downpour, a hardened PHS squad went on a stirring run in the Central West B Group 4 sectional. The top-seeded Tigers defeated eighth-seeded Watchung Hills 2-0 in the quarterfinals and then cruised to a 5-0 victory over fifth-seeded Hightstown in the semis.

In the final, PHS hosted second-seeded and perennial powerhouse Hunterdon Central in a contest that turned into a thrilling battle. The Tigers held the fort under a furious onslaught by Red Devils in the first 20 minutes of the game but survived to keep the clash knotted in a scoreless tie at halftime. Hunterdon Central scored early in the second half and the Tigers responded by generating a number of scoring chances but couldn’t break through in a 1-0 defeat.

While Sutcliffe was disappointed by the result, he was proud of how his players kept their focus through such an unusual fall.

“It was a dream season in a lot of ways,” asserted Sutcliffe, whose team ended 2020 with a 9-3-1 record.

“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.”

Even though that hard work didn’t produce 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.”

Sutcliffe’s role in helping to foster that growth and trust along with the squad’s success on the pitch makes him the top coach of a male team this fall.

Coming into the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional final in mid- November, the Princeton High girls’ cross country team was a dark horse.

“We were the team nobody was looking at,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk.

“We were the team that had the chance to do something special moving forward. Then COVID hit and it definitely threw a wrench in the works, but to the girls’ credit, they kept doing the work and running the part of who they are – their identity. So at the 11th hour, when we got our season back, the focus was on continuing to grow the team and being the best we could be and letting everything else fall into place.”

Things fell into place for PHS in the meet at Thompson Park in Jamesburg on November 14 as the Tigers came in first, winning the program’s first-ever sectional title at the Group 4 level. PHS had a score of 49 with runner-up Montgomery coming in at 54. Hunterdon Central was third with 100 points.

“We knew the race was going to come down to how tight our pack was,” said Smirk, who had guided PHS to the Central Jersey Group 3 sectional crown in 2014.

The depth of the squad’s pack made the difference. Senior Charlotte Gilmore led the way in fourth place, clocking a time of 19:32.50 over the 5,000-meter course. Freshman Kyleigh Tangen placed sixth in 19:59.30 and sophomore Lucy Kreipke was seventh in 20:04.50. Sophomore Robin Roth closed well for 10th place in 20:16.70 while senior Yana Medvedeva took 22nd in 20:55.70.

But it was more than depth that allowed PHS to make history. While the season was in jeopardy due to COVID concerns, once Princeton school officials gave the go-ahead for fall sports, the runners forged deep bonds. The Tigers held virtual pasta parties, they got together as frequently as possible over Zoom and they viewed workouts as opportunities, not chores.

“We’ve really capitalized on forming a strong team bond and team culture, not just teammate bonds, but friendship bonds and knowing all your teammates are going to do everything they can to help contribute to your success and knowing you have that role to contribute to theirs,” said senior standout Medvedeva. “It makes everything so much more exciting and showing up to meets so much more exciting.”

While the PHS runners certainly put in the miles as they went undefeated in Colonial Valley Conference duals this fall leading up to the sectional victory, they showed their coach a special maturity.

“The thing that impressed me the most wasn’t their work ethic,” said Smirk.

“Their work ethic has been great for a long time. It was their patience. They were very willing to be patient and continue to work knowing that every day we got to train together, every race we got was another great opportunity we didn’t have as of mid-August. They really took advantage of that and bathed in how good it was to be together and enjoyed that together.”

For setting a positive tone under difficult circumstances  that helped put his runners on course to history, Smirk is the choice as the leading coach of a female team.