November 23, 2022

Bringing English Mindset to PRISMS Boys’ Soccer, Coach May Helped Falcons Make Major Improvement

INTERNATIONAL FLAIR: Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science (PRISMS) boys’ soccer player Oliver Gao shows his form in a game this fall. Senior Gao helped lead the way as the PRISMS squad went 2-3-2 under new head coach Jay James May. (Photo provided courtesy of PRISMS)

By Bill Alden

Growing up in soccer-mad England, Jay James May fell in love with the game at an early age.

“We all play, it is like a religion with the approach to it and how you feel about it,” said May. “Every time you have a break you are out playing football. You are on the field as much as you can. I played a lot as a teenager.”

In his 20s, May devoted his energy to academics, matriculating to the University of Sussex, where he was awarded a trio of prizes, including highest-ranked student in its School of English. He later earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of York. May then got into education, teaching worldwide, beginning in his native England before teaching in Spain and China for 10 years.

During his five-year stint teaching in China, May made his debut coaching soccer.

“China is where I really started coaching because they had a gap for it at the school,” said May. “I coached our house team, the schools are divided into houses and you get a quarter of the population.”

Coming to Princeton this past summer to teach English at the Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science (PRISMS), May took on a labor of love, becoming the head coach of its boys’ soccer team.

At the outset, May wasn’t sure what he had in terms of the talent on hand.

“It was hard to gauge; our training pitch is very lumpy so it is hard for them to sort of really show off their skill,” said May. “We had one boy who plays club soccer and we worked on skills a lot.”

The Falcons made an inauspicious debut, losing 6-2 to the Lawrenceville School freshman team in its season opener.

“What happened in the last 10-15 minutes is that the boys ran out of puff,” said May. “They were just dead on their feet; Lawrenceville pushed us off the ball. It was a case of putting out fires after the Lawrenceville game. It was, ‘right, you are getting pushed off the ball too easily and you are tired, so we have to work on strength and fitness. At the same time that we have to be working on your skills.’”

Bouncing back, the Falcons improved their  skills and fitness, ended up with a final record of 2-3-2.

A tactical tweak by May helped get the squad on the right track.

“I introduced them to a flexible formation with a 3-4-3 with the two guys on the side of the four,” said May, whose coaching staff included fellow faculty members Zachary White, Dane Kang and Weijing Wang. “They have to run all over the field basically. They have to support the attack. They have be part of a solid five on defense; in some ways in that formation, it is the most important role. We don’t have any specialists in that sense, the boys that have played that role and done really well with it.

May views a 1-1 tie with New Jersey United Christian Academy (NJUCA) in its third game as a turning point for PRISMS.

“We established our defensive solidity; we had played the formation a few times and then we started focusing more on how to use the ball,” said May, whose squad went on to post a pair of wins over the Wilberforce School (2-1 and 2-0) and then lost 1-0 in a rematch with the Lawrenceville freshmen and had a 2-2 tie with the Princeton Day School JV team in its finale.

“At this age or level, they have a tendency to just kick it away like it is a hot potato when they receive it. We were trying to instill in them receiving the ball, shielding it with your body and passing it off, actually playing the game. That was the first time where they started doing it and you could see the confidence growing.”

The squad responded positively to May’s approach. “To be fair to the boys, they have taken that on board; it is no good trying to do it if they are resistant to it,” said May, whose team trained on campus and played its home games at the Farmview Fields.

“We would do an extended training everyday by at least half an hour. They are smart boys. I tried to appeal to the mathematical nature of the kids, trying to explain things in terms of systems. On the pitch, we would do some board work and get them into the classroom so they could see the shape, the movement and the permutations.”

A quartet of seniors — Oliver Gao, Henry Li, Kevin Ya, and Toby Sun — worked hard in their final campaign for the PRISMS program.

“Oliver is your top man, he really puts his heart and soul into it,” said May. “He really cares about the other boys and he works hard. On the pitch, he is not the most talented player but he certainly improved himself this season and grew in confidence. He is an absolute warrior. He has been kicked in the face, he has been elbowed in it twice. He doesn’t leave anything out there, he works his socks off. Kevin is the all-time top scorer here. He leads by example, the boys look up to him. He probably has the most talent of the lot. Henry and Toby are good players, solid players.”

May is looking for sophomore Massi Ravotto, who led the Falcons with four goals this fall, and goalie Edward Cheng to be the cornerstones of the squad going forward.

“Massi has raw talent, he has got the weaknesses that boys of age will have where boys keep the ball too long and want to do everything himself,” said May. “He comes from a good place so I am working on that with him. He is going to be important for us. Edward improved a lot, we have really had to work with him on his communication. He has good reactions, he is a good shot stopper. We are still trying to instill his communication and using the box, being brave and coming out in crosses. He improved hugely and that 1-nil game against Lawrenceville, he kept us in the game so we had a chance to nick it.”

In May’s view, the future is bright for the program.

“We are really happy with the progress we made,” said May. “We will have spring training. Throughout the summer for the time that I am here, I will offer training to the boys who are around. It is a case of keep going, they know what is expected of them now. It is a really nice group, we got a few decent freshmen this year. Our captain will be probably picked from the sophomore group. We are looking good for the future.”

The progress made by the Falcons this fall has helped spread the love of the game at the school.

“We have a morning announcement every day where the school gathers together and the roar that goes up when the soccer team reports a victory,” said May. “They are really united and it lifts the spirits. The competition is good for the kids at the end of the day.”