November 24, 2021

PU Men’s Soccer Falls to St. John’s in NCAA Opener, But Perfect Ivy Campaign Made for Unforgettable Fall

OH BOY: Princeton University men’s soccer player Kevin O’Toole dribbles past a foe in recent action. Senior star O’Toole, who was named the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year this season as he helped Princeton go 7-0 in league play, saw his brilliant career come to an end as the Tigers fell 1-0 at St. John’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament last Thursday. Princeton ended the fall with an overall record of 12-6. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

In late September, the Princeton University men’s soccer team lost a hard-fought 1-0 battle to St. John’s.

Last Thursday, Princeton got a rematch at St. John’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament and the Tigers were primed to turn the tables on the Red Storm.

“The last couple of games were really hard to grind out results; we had stretches during those games where I thought we played well but I think the guys were so determined to win the league and get through the league unbeaten,” said Princeton head coach Jim Barlow, whose team came into the NCAA game at 12-5 overall and 7-0 Ivy and riding an 8-game winning streak.

“At times it was more about competing than it was about putting the best soccer out there. At times we were able to do both. We had stretches down the stretch where I thought we were really connected, defending as group, moving the ball well and creating chances. I think there was a lot of confidence going into the tournament.”

Barlow knew it wouldn’t be easy to overcome St. John’s. “They are just so hard to score on, they concede so few goals,” said Barlow.

“They are big, they are athletic. It is a tough matchup. We didn’t create many chances in the first game against them and I don’t think they did either. It was a pretty competitive game with neither team able to generate many chances.”

The NCAA contest turned out to be competitive but with same result as the Red Storm won 1-0, finding the back of the net at the 43rd minute and holding off the Tigers from there.

“I think this game both teams created a little more real chances than in the first game, they capitalized on one and we didn’t,” said Barlow.

“We knew that it was going to come down to a couple of plays in front of both goals. To their credit, their guy [Brandon] Knapp did a really good job on a ball that deflected to him, just turning and shooting right at the top of the box and hit it low in the corner. It was a really good finishing. I certainly think we had opportunities to finish that were probably better looks than that one but just didn’t find a way to finish it off.”

While the loss to the Red Storm was disappointing, Barlow was proud of what his team accomplished this year in returning to action after the 2020 season was canceled by the Ivy League due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns.

“After getting off to a 4-5 start, no one would have predicted that we could have gone unscathed and unblemished through the league,” said Barlow.

“It was a great tribute to the leaders on the team and every guy on the team to be able to do that. It is a really, really hard league to win, there are a lot of good teams. The breaks went our way this year and we capitalized on it. The guys showed the strength, the will and the motivation to continue pushing for every one of those games we considered to be a championship game.”

The squad showed some swagger as it went on its run to the Ivy title.

“I would say this group was very confident; the energy, excitement, and confidence that they projected going into every Ivy League game was special,” said Barlow.

“The energy on the bench in those games was special. The guys just believed that they were going to get it done. They were ultra-competitive and determined. The energy and spirit was great.”

Barlow credited his seniors with triggering that energy and spirit.

“A lot of those guys took a year off to try and prepare for this,” said Barlow, whose senior group included Jack Roberts, Sam Morton, Kazu Shigenobu, Moulay Hamza Kanzi Belghiti, Kevin O’Toole, Frankie DeRosa, Alex Charles, Michael Osei Wusu, Rowan Pierson, and Truman Gelnovatch.

“It meant so much to them and they drove the mentality of the group, they drove the culture, they pushed the team along. In times we hit rough patches, they were still believing that we could get it done. They were still trying to set the tone. Those guys are going to leave a legacy for the younger guys for a lot of their traits.”

Senior midfielder/forward O’Toole is leaving a special legacy, tallying seven goals and nine assists this fall as he was named the Ivy Offensive Player of the Year for the second time in his career.

“He just wants to go out and do his job; there is such an awesome joy that he plays with,” said Barlow of O’Toole.

“You could tell when he is out there, how much fun he is having. To go through the first half of the year not scoring a goal and then to emerge as one of the best attacking players in the country in the second half was a testament to his ability to stay focused, not get discouraged and keep pushing it. In the biggest games of the year, he was at his best.”

With a group of returners that includes such All-Ivy performers as Lucas Gen, Daniel Diaz-Bonilla, Malik Pinto, Issa Mudashiru, and Walker Gillespie, Barlow believes that Princeton can build on its 2021 championship campaign.

“Everything is different and you hope for the young guys that they don’t think we went 7-0 and we can expect this every year,” said Barlow.

“It is a special year and it takes a lot of things going your way to win the league. It was a fun run for sure. It was great to see the guys get a championship after such a long layoff.”