Over the last two seasons, Chase Ealy has been a threat from left back for the Princeton High boys’ soccer team.
But with senior midfielder John Blair getting sidelined for the season due to a knee injury and the team struggling to score goals, the PHS coaches decided to move Ealy up the field.
Putting junior star Ealy at striker paid immediate dividends as he scored a goal in a 1-1 tie with Pennington in a Mercer County Tournament consolation game and then chipped in two tallies as the fourth-seeded Little Tigers topped No. 13 Neptune 4-0 in the opening round of the Group III Central Jersey sectional.
Last Friday in a sectional quarterfinal contest against fifth-seeded Hopewell Valley, Ealy gave further evidence of his finishing prowess, scoring two more goals as the Little Tigers topped the Bulldogs 3-0.
The win earned PHS a shot at top-seeded Allentown in the sectional quarters in a game slated for November 12 with the winner advancing to the title game on November 15.
Ealy is relishing the chance to have a bigger role in the PHS attack. “I have had a lot of good looks in the state tournament,” said Ealy.
“Coach put me up at striker and obviously that puts me in front of the net a lot more and I have been hitting the shots.”
The loss of Blair left a void that Ealy is trying to fill. “John was definitely a big part of our offense and now that I am up at striker I do feel as if I can really help Kevin [Halliday] and Zeno [Mazzucato],” said Ealy.
“The other two have been at the forward positions all year to get the goals. I have been working here a long time; I know the team.”
In the win over HoVal, Ealy benefited from being a bit of an unknown quantity. He scored on a penalty kick midway through the first half and then tallied on a point blank blast as he converted a feed from Kevin Halliday with 24:01 remaining in regulation to put PHS up 2-0.
“They knew to mark Kevin, I don’t think they had much of a report on me and I took advantage of that,” said Ealy.
“I hit my corner every time on the PK, I don’t change it. That was a great play by Kevin on the second goal. No one stepped up to him, he had all the time in the world to find his pass. I just knew if I posted up, he would hit me and off the six I can hit my shots. It was a nice tap-in.”
The PHS defense also put in a great effort against HoVal, stifling the talented Bulldogs throughout the contest.
“I was so impressed with our defense today,” asserted Ealy. “They held down that line. They did what they needed to do. Whenever they did get back there, Laurenz [Reimitz] was a wall. It all went well.”
PHS head coach Wayne Sutcliffe knew that Ealy’s skills could be put to good use up the field.
“We weren’t really in a position to really use him as a striker in the first half of the season,” said Sutcliffe, who also got a goal from freshman Andrew Goldsmith in the win over HoVal.
“We worked to slot him in there. John is out for the season, Chase characteristically can play anywhere. He is a flank left player but he is pretty threatening so what a day for him. These moments are scripted for guys like that.”
With PHS having lost 2-1 to HoVal in the rivals’ regular season encounter, Sutcliffe knew that his team had to flip the script through better ball possession.
“In the middle third and the front third, we wanted to hold it and let the ball move in different ways because Hopewell has such a big, fast, athletic team,” said Sutcliffe, whose team improved to 10-5-2.
“Our goal is to make them chase and to try to keep it, build from there, switch the point, and get it in to Kevin and Chase who can put pressure on them there and hold the ball up.”
With a playoff pedigree that features a 16-2-1 record in state tournament play over the last four years, including three sectional titles, a state title in 2009, and state co-championship last year, the Little Tigers have proven they can thrive under postseason pressure. As a result, PHS was not fazed when it struggled down the stretch, going 1-4-2 in its last seven games before the state tournament.
“We lost 12 guys from last year so we knew we had to rebuild,” said Sutcliffe.
“So during the season we are going to have some ups and downs. We are either going to bow out in a bad way or we are going to be where we are now and credit to the guys for doing it. I think there is a lot of resilience in the group, there is a lot of quality with eight sophomores and three freshmen. But then we have guys on this team who have been around for three or four years, and in the last two years, we have won 10 state tournament games.”
Ealy, for his part, believes that the program’s tradition of tournament success drives the Little Tigers.
“We just have a legacy here where we are a championship team,” said Ealy.
“We know that no matter what we did in the regular season we are always expected to contend for every championship. No one wants this to be that year that we didn’t win anything. No matter how we did in the regular season, we want states and we want the MCT. We can do it, we always have the skill for it.”