November 20, 2019

Undergoing a Youth Movement by Necessity, PHS Boys’ Soccer Gained Valuable Experience

MILES TO GO: Princeton High boys’ soccer player Miles Ryan controls the ball in a game this fall. Sophomore midfielder Ryan was one of several young players who stepped up this season for PHS as it went 14-7 and advanced to the Mercer County Tournament semifinals and the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional quarters. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Wayne Sutcliffe has never guided such a young Princeton High boys’ soccer team in his 23 years as head coach of the program as he had this fall.

There was not a senior on the field when fifth-seeded PHS lost 1-0 to 13th-seeded and eventual sectional finalist, Long Branch, on November 1 in the Central Jersey Group 4 quarterfinal.

While the harsh finality of the result stung, the Tigers could look ahead with justified optimism to the 2020 season.

“There’s clear desire on their part to win some silverware next year,” said Sutcliffe.

“Especially for all the guys who are going to be in their senior year. There was a feel good factor within the team at the end of the year. You can kind of read things like the vibe of the team, and I know guys are excited about next year. They’re going to have to come back and compete with each other because it’s not going to be easy to get on.”

Despite leaning almost exclusively on its junior and sophomore classes, Princeton finished 14-7 overall, 10-4 in the Colonial Valley Conference. It was a six-win improvement over the 2018 season when the team went 8-6-3.

“I could tell they enjoyed it,” said Sutcliffe. “We hope they enjoyed the season. You have to enjoy your soccer. It’s not just a grind to win games, which ultimately is the ultimate goal. The enjoyment of the game has to be there too.”

The Tigers posted 11 shutouts on the year, including a 1-0 win over 12th-seeded South Brunswick to open the sectional tournament. The Little Tigers reached the Mercer County Tournament semifinals before being stopped by Notre Dame and played well in the sectional quarterfinals.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Sutcliffe said. “It’s the youngest team we’ve ever had. I couldn’t be more pleased with their commitment and improvement. We’re bringing back 21 guys. That really sets a positive outlook for 2020. And now it’s just a matter of getting in and working hard for next season and trying to be as best as we can with all the experience we gained from this year and last year too.”

Coming into the season, Sutcliffe knew that his squad would be young with the program having been rebuilding since taking the sectional crown in 2017.

“Two years ago when we won the Group 4 sectional title and went to the Group 4 state title game, we lost 13 seniors from that team and 10 of them started,” said Sutcliffe.

“Last year, it was trying to develop as many young guys as we could to condition them to the demands of it all. This year, we had not that many seniors and a load of juniors and a really solid sophomore class. It was a matter of trying to acclimate as quickly as possible to the demands of it regarding games and big games.”

The year began with four CVC wins sandwiched around a loss to Gill St. Bernard’s, one of the state’s top teams. After dropping a tight 2-1 contest to Trenton, PHS got back on track with six straight wins, including a solid non-conference victory at Westfield to end September. Competitive losses to Hopewell Valley, Lawrence and Notre Dame led into the Mercer County Tournament.

In the MCT, fourth-seeded PHS edged Nottingham 2-0 and Hun 1-0 before running into Notre Dame in the semis where it fell 5-2. The Tigers avenged their loss to Hopewell with a 4-0 win over the Bulldogs on October 25 before opening state tournament play.

“I thought we were well prepared heading into the state tournament,” said Sutcliffe.

“We got to the semifinals of the Mercer County Tournament. We played Notre Dame in the semis, arguably the best team in the CVC this year, and we learned a lot from that game. Prior to that, we had some heavy battles. Gill St. Bernard’s was the No. 10 team in New Jersey and we played them. We had a great game against Trenton. The regular season games against Hopewell and Notre Dame were big. We were pretty battle tested by the start of the state tournament. We were confident. Group 4 Central Jersey is loaded with good teams, but anyone can win it.  Long Branch, with the 13th seed, ended up playing in the final against Hunterdon Central. I thought we had as good a chance as anyone to advance to the semifinal and final of the sectional tournament.”

In the sectional quarterfinal clash, PHS and Long Branch were scoreless through the first half and then the visitors broke through with the only goal of the game less than three minutes into the second half. The Tigers never got the equalizer despite generating some superb opportunities.

“It was such a close game, a 1-0 final,” said Sutcliffe. “We had three really good chances. They had their fair share too. When you’re playing on a one-off, it’s just the little things – the quality of your technique, how clinical you can be in and around the penalty area, and not making a mistake, which is not easy. Easily, we could have won the game. They were very good and I thought we were as good on the day.”

What stood out for Sutcliffe was the progress that he saw through the season. PHS remained young, and it could be argued got younger as no seniors saw the field in the final, but they gained experience and confidence together.

“The growth throughout the campaign was clear,” said Sutcliffe.

“A lot of guys saw a lot of minutes in a lot of games. By November, they were different players than they had been in August, specifically in the junior and sophomore class. The synergy and the chemistry was really good. Consequently, the work rate and the effort and commitment were there. We were really a team. That didn’t surprise me or the coaching staff. It was great to see.”

The same players will be back next year, and the Little Tigers will lean on their leaders who started to come on this year.

“It was really the juniors and sophomores that took the initiative and showed the most character and leadership,” said Sutcliffe.

“Nick Petruso is a third-year varsity guy, a junior, he was a good leader by example. He had the most points in the CVC this year, I think 21 goals, nine assists. His leadership was good; he did it through example in big games. James Novak, our outside left back, he’s another guy that leads by example. Ethan Parker is another kid I can cite, and Rafa Davis, three of those four were a quick study on what it’s all about.”

Sutcliffe foresees stiff competition for playing spots next year as the Tigers expect their full squad back, and they will be returning with this year’s experience. It’s a great starting point, though not quite the level of some past PHS squads.

“We’ve had several teams where we brought back a lot of guys that had won the Mercer County Tournament or won the sectional title,” said Sutcliffe. “One year we had 16 seniors and we went to the Group 3 state final the year before. We didn’t do that this year, but they have a lot of experience to draw on.”

The only thing missing for a PHS side that will be senior and junior heavy next year is a championship. The Tigers showed marked improvement from last year to this year and even within the season, but will be looking for more in 2020 as they seek to maintain the high standards established over the last two decades.

“This is the second year in a row that the team has not won a title,” said Sutcliffe.

“That doesn’t happen very often for us fortunately. That’s a goal. They’re going to have to take ownership of that and try to achieve that. We’ll get into the weight room and work hard and have the summer to prepare. It’s exciting.”