September 28, 2022

With Senior George Spearheading the Back Line, PHS Boys’ Soccer Produces Impressive 7-1 Start

HEADS UP PLAY: Princeton High boys’ soccer player Leo George, center, heads the ball in recent action. Last Thursday, senior center back George scored a goal in a losing cause as PHS fell 2-1 at Hopewell Valley. The Tigers, who defeated Lawrence High 2-0 last Saturday to improve to 7-1, host Nottingham on September 29. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

As one of just three senior starters on the Princeton High boys’ soccer team this year, Leo George has assumed extra responsibility on the field.

“I have definitely stepped up as a leader,” said center back George. “We lost a lot of seniors coming in so I know I had to step up. We are a young team.”

Last Thursday as PHS played at Hopewell Valley, George stepped up early in the first half, blasting in a goal off a feed from Patrick Kenah on a set piece.

“I was feeling very opportunistic,” said George. “I saw a loose ball, so I just took a knock at goal. It was on my left foot, I decided why not. It went into the top, it felt great. I also knew it was only about 10 minutes in and anything can happen.”

Lifted by that tally, PHS carried play for much of the first half as it had a lot of possession and took a 1-0 lead into intermission.

“We were playing great soccer,” said George. “I would say we had the first half in our hands.”

But HoVal wore down PHS as the game unfolded, scoring a pair of goals in the last 15 minutes of regulation to pull out a 2-1 win and hand the Tigers their first loss of the fall.

“They came out strong in the second half,” said George. “They are much bigger, much stronger than us. Their first goal was by No. 6 (Austin Warren); he towered over all of us and put it in. The second goal was unfortunate, we lost our man. In the future, we have to do better on those.”

Although PHS didn’t get the victory, George enjoyed the competitiveness of the matchup.

“It was definitely our biggest test, we came in knowing that it was going to be our biggest game of the year,” said George. “We just had a big game against Hightstown (a 4-3 OT win on September 20), we were still recovering from playing overtime.”

In George’s view, the experience of battling HoVal should help the Tigers play better down the stretch.

“We just have to persevere through 80 minutes,” said George. “We will learn a lot from this going forward, playing more big games. We have Notre Dame coming, we have the county tournament coming up. It was a great learning game.”

PHS head coach Wayne Sutcliffe credited his squad with getting off to a great start against the Bulldogs.

“I couldn’t be more pleased. It was a really good early goal, and we were on top of it,” said Sutcliffe. “We were making them suffer, we were winning the little battles. We were finding one another well.”

Sutcliffe believes that his young squad gained some valuable lessons from the setback.

“We will take a lot from the match, having a good first 40 is really good and nicking a goal and going into halftime ahead is really important,” said Sutcliffe. “With the quality of Hopewell, it is a matter of just getting through the second half and learning how to manage the game properly and neutralize their assets and get another one. That is the message.”

In reflecting on the HoVal rally, Sutcliffe acknowledged that the quality of the play from PHS slipped a little bit down the stretch.

“I thought we lost a little bit of our sharpness,” said Sutcliffe. “They made a tactical adjustment; they moved their center back up and that presented us with some issues. That is the learning curve for us.”

The Tigers have been getting sharp play from George throughout the fall.

“Leo has been phenomenal, he is a great leader,” said Sutcliffe, noting that George also stars for the PHS boys’ lacrosse team. “He is a captain of the team. He is extraordinary. What a goal he had. All season long, he has been consistent, steady. He is a good center back. He brings a great athleticism, and he is a senior. We only have three in the lineup of which he is one. We are so proud of him.”

A trio of juniors — Felipe Matar Grande, Nick Matese, and Kenah — brought athleticism and skill to the pitch against HoVal.

“Felipe and Nick are doing great, they each had good spurts, especially in the first half,” said Sutcliffe. “Patrick had a really good second half.

While the defeat stung, Sutcliffe believes it could be a blessing in disguise.

“I think we are going to be fine; we are a young group, but we are good enough to win big things,” said Sutcliffe. “You learn a lot more from a loss. I would have liked it if we had won the game. We have a really good team. Are we good enough to win every CVC game? I don’t know about that, or if it would even be advantageous going into two tournaments not having lost. I have had other teams who have done that, and it is not easy.”

Playing lot of games in a schedule that has been condensed hasn’t necessarily been advantageous for PHS as well.

“We are being forced to play three games a week for six weeks, this is the seventh game,” said Sutcliffe. “It is counterproductive; it leads to soccer players not having enough time to recover. I think that was a factor in the game today. We were 4-3 against Hightstown, we won the game in extra time. Three games a week for six weeks is not easy. It is an administrative decision.”

Sutcliffe is confident, however, that his players have the right mindset to deal with that challenge.

“The chemistry and the spirit of the team is phenomenal,” asserted Sutcliffe, whose team defeated Lawrence 2-0 last Saturday to improve to 7-1 and was slated to play at Notre Dame on September 27 before hosting Nottingham on September 29.

“My assistant coach Ryan [Walsh] and I couldn’t ask for more. The spirit, the genuine honesty, the work rate, that is the No. 1 thing. Then just behind that is the great quality we have. We are a young team, and they are so enjoyable to work with.”

George, for his part, believes the Tigers will maintain their work rate.

“It is just putting our head down and keep grinding,” said George. “We are a young team, and that is all we can do. It is just go on to the next one and learn from this one. We will keep going.”