April 26, 2023

Sutcliffe Stepping Down from Guiding PHS Boys’ Soccer, Ending Storied 26-Year Tenure that Featured 2 State Crowns

FOND FAREWELL: Princeton High boys’ soccer head coach Wayne Sutcliffe surveys the action in a game last fall. Sutcliffe recently announced that he is stepping down from guiding the Tigers after 26 seasons at the helm of the program. During his storied tenure, the Tigers won a slew of championships including 19 Colonial Valley Conference division titles, seven Mercer County Tournaments, seven New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Central Jersey sectional crowns, two NJSIAA state finals (2014, 2017), and two NJSIAA state championships (2009, 2012). (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Wayne Sutcliffe faced some tough competition in 1997 when he put his hat in the ring in a bid to take the helm of the Princeton High boys’ soccer program.

“I was hired to replace Ron [Celestin],” said Sutcliffe, referring to the beloved and legendary Celestin, who had guided the program to a state title before leaving to become an assistant coach for the Princeton University women’s soccer team. “There were 50 applicants for the job and I got it.”

Sutcliffe, who previously coached at Moorestown Friends and served as the technical director for Moorestown soccer club, quickly realized he had landed in a hot seat.

“The pressure was really intense because two years prior Princeton had won the Group 2 state championship,” said Sutcliffe, who also worked as a PE teacher at PHS. “There were high expectations, it wasn’t easy.”

Over the last 26 seasons, Sutcliffe exceeded those expectations, guiding the Tigers to more than 300 wins and a slew of titles. The program’s postseason haul included 19 Colonial Valley Conference division titles, seven Mercer County Tournaments, seven New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Central Jersey sectional crowns, two NJSIAA state finals (2014, 2017), and two NJSIAA state championships (2009, 2012)

Earlier this month, Sutcliffe announced that he was stepping down from the program, concluding that it was the right time to pass the torch.

“We are going to have a really good team this fall the team is in a really good place,” said Sutcliffe.

“It was not that tough a decision, I had been thinking about it for two years. I coached there for 26 seasons. We won everything you could win in New Jersey soccer. It is good to try it again. I just feel as though the program is in a really good place with the health of the three teams (freshman, JV, and varsity), the quality of players, the chemistry, and the vibe. The parent booster club is fantastic, they have been so supportive. I had my time.”

Sutcliffe had a great time guiding PHS to its run of excellence.

“When you win a state championship, it is absolutely extraordinary,” said Sutcliffe, whose team topped Millburn in the 2009 Group 3 title game and shared the championship with Ramapo in 2012. 

“I can remember every single title, the sectional titles, the MCT titles, the CVC titles, and winning the league on the last day of the season. We did that several times. That level of success is absolutely extraordinary when it happens. There is so much work that goes into it, it is so hard.”

That success stemmed from a lot of good work from his players as they produced a special brand of soccer.

“Certainly there is a collective understanding and mission that it is all about the team tactically they and to play the game the right way,” said Sutcliffe.

“We were trying to play as simply as possible and to keep the ball, I would say those are the two themes. My objective was to keep that going with the Princeton team and put my stamp on it because that was the way Ron coached.”

Sutlcliffe’s longtime coaching staff, which included assistant coaches Salvy Baldino and Carlos Salazar, played a key role in the program’s achievements.

“We were a team, we all had our strengths and we are very close personal friends; Salvy played for me,” said Sutcliffe.

“We were just so committed to this team. We are in the weight room from March to June. There were alumni pickup games every Tuesday and Thursday on the turf with 30,40 guys showing up. We played in the Mercer 8s league for years with a lot of success. Once preseason started, the frequency of training and matches was six, seven days a week. We gave everything to that team and held it as high a priority as anything in our lives aside from our families.”

For Baldino, being on the staff was like family. “Wayne never gets too high or too low, he is really such a poised gentleman that I really respected as a player and as a coach to work with,” said Baldino, a goalie for the program from 1997-99 who served as an assistant coach from 2004-19.

“We right away worked great together. Between Carlos, Wayne and myself, we instantly became very close friends.”

In Baldino’s view, Sutcliffe’s close bonds with his players was a major factor in the his great run.

“He was so connected with our players, he would see all of these kids in school,” said Baldino.

“In a lot of cases, he knew their parents, he knew their cousins, or he had coached their brothers. There was such a connection he made with the players. He knew when they were on, he knew when they were off. He really knew how to get the best out of the players.”

While all of the titles are great, Baldino believes it is that brotherhood that means the most to Sutcliffe.

“More than the wins, Wayne will always cherish the relationships we have with the players,” said Baldino.

“Year after year, we have our alumni game on the day after Thanksgiving. Everybody is home and so many guys have come back over the years. Having those guys come back and stay in touch and really be friends with some of these guys and their families, that means way more to Wayne than the championships. This year we had the game and as luck would have it, USA played England that same day. We all went to Conte’s afterward to watch the World Cup game. Those are the memories that Wayne will really cherish, the soccer community, the brotherhood.”

Sutcliffe concurs, relishing the rapport he has maintained with his players.

“These guys are all in their 20s and 30s now and they are some of my best friends, we keep in touch,” said Sutcliffe.

“At the annual alumni game the day after Thanksgiving last year, we had 35 guys. I haven’t lost the connection to most of the guys.”

That connection has been evident in the way the players and coaches have responded to the detention of former PHS star and team captain Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested in Russia in late March on an assignment. The U.S. has asserted that the arrest is wrongful and has pressed for Gershkovich’s release. The PHS players have created a website, Free Evan Gershkovich (www.freegershkovich.com), to address the situation.

“There is a bit of irony in that this is happening to Evan right now and that the alumni and the current team were reunited on that front,” said Sutcliffe, noting that Gershkovich played a key role in the team’s win over Millburn in the 2009 state championship game.

One of those current players, junior Felipe Matar Grandi, credits Sutcliffe with making a major impact on his development.

“I feel like it has been a learning experience, he taught me a lot, not only about soccer but in life, how to grow as a player and as a person,” said Matar Grandi

“He taught me a lot about leadership because I was a junior captain. He gave me all of the support that I needed.”

Sutcliffe has given the players the benefit of his extensive experience in the game.

“He is the coach I have played under who probably has the most knowledge,” said Matar Grandi.

“He knows a lot about the game and he really loves soccer. He is always doing his research, he is always watching games, and talking about games.”

That knowledge translated into Sutcliffe being able to motivate his players to being their best to the pitch.

“He was always confident in our teams, he knew we could do it and that gave players confidence,” said Matar Grandi.

“He pushed us to do everything and got us hyped up before the games. He always focused on making players better and working as a team and keeping us together. I want to think him for everything he has done for us.”

Sutcliffe, for his part, is thankful that he got the PHS job and won’t soon forget all that he has experienced over the last 26 years in
that post.

“I will miss the players, the training, the relationships with the players, winning a game late,” said Sutcliffe, who will continue teaching PE at PHS and is looking to coach club soccer, noting that current assistant
Ryan Walsh is his likely successor to guide the Tigers.

“I can’t give enough credit to Salvy and Carlos and for the last seven years, Ryan. This isn’t only about me. We worked so hard together and these are three of my best friends too. There are coaching staffs but it was so special. We all played this game, we have coaching licenses. What we did is we lived it. It was so much fun.”