November 15, 2023

PDS Girls’ Soccer Raised its Game Down the Stretch, Topping Mount St. Dominic 2-0 in Non-Public A Final

RISING TO THE OCCASION: Princeton Day School girls’ soccer player Ella McLaren, left, heads the ball as PDS battled St. John Vianney in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public A South tournament. The Panthers went on to win the South tournament and last Friday and earned the Non-Public A title as they defeated Mount St. Dominic 2-0 in the state final at Franklin High. It was the first-ever Non-Public state title for the program. The Panthers finished the fall at 17-2-3. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

For Mackenzie Brodel, it was a prayer answered and a dream come true, while Ella McLaren was rendered speechless.

Sophomores Brodel and McLaren played key roles last Friday night as the Princeton Day School girls’ soccer team defeated Mount St. Dominic 2-0 in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public A state final at Franklin High. Brodel scored a goal early in the second half to put PDS up 1-0 and McLaren helped anchor a stingy PDS defense that stifled the high-powered Lion attack.

With the foes locked in a scoreless tie headed into the second half, PDS was determined to break through.

“We were just doing the same thing that we always do,” said Brodel. “We were just looking to get the ball in the back of the net.”

Brodel got the ball into the back of the net 1:16 into the half,  lofting a volley over the Mount St. Dominic goalie.

“I saw the ball coming at me and just touched it and prayed,” said Brodel, reflecting on her tally. “I was just hoping it was somewhere near the goal.”

Midway through the second half, the Panthers struck again as sophomore Juliana Hartman slotted the ball into the back of the net to put PDS up 2-0.

“I feel like we really held together and we just wanted it a lot more,” said Brodel. “The second goal just really set it up and cemented it down. It was good.”

For Brodel, coming through in the title game was a very good moment.

“I have been dreaming about this night since I started,” said Brodel. “I was dreaming about it last night. I was making up scenarios in my head before I fell asleep. I wanted it really bad — I was hungry for it.”

At the other end of the field, McLaren and the PDS defenders were focused on containing Mount St. Dominic stars Gianna Camporeale and Lena Tusche, who came into the game having scored 29 and 19 goals, respectively.

“We knew that they were going to be very good; me and Tochi [Owunna] were going to have to cover each other and communicate with each other,” said McLaren. “They were technically very good and very fast. I think we played good against them. We were able to throw in a slide tackle or step in at the right moment or just cover each other with the long balls and their speed.”

In the second half, the Panthers held the fort as the Lions furiously pressed forward after PDS forged ahead.

“That is something we have been working on all season, there have been a couple of games where teams have scored on us in the last couple of minutes,” said McLaren. “We were just trying to stay calm, play our own game and get it out, go to the corners, and just give it our everything to the last minute.”

Over the course of the fall, McLaren has developed a special partnership at center back with senior star Owunna.

“Me and Tochi work so well together; our chemistry is really great back there,” said McLaren.

“We just know what each other is going to do. It is like we have twin telepathy.”

Coming down the stretch in the Non-Public tournament, the Panthers produced their best work of the season.

“I think every game has been very good. I feel like this game we gave everything,” said McLaren, who kissed the state championship trophy in the postgame celebration. “We really wanted this win, I think that paid off with the score. I don’t even know how to put it into words. I am just so happy we won, I don’t know what to say.”

At halftime, PDS head coach Chris Pettit implored his squad to stick to their game.

“If we are going to win this game, we are going to have to win it for ourselves playing our style,” said Pettit. “When we have the ball, we have to be aware of their players but we don’t have to be frightened of them. If we have the ball, at that point we control our own destiny. I think you saw more of that in the second half.”

The goal by Brodel set the tone of the second half for the Panthers.

“That gave us a big lift and settled us down; I feel like the second half, you are always going to get nervous, it is always going to be frantic,” said Pettit. “They had a loud crowd here yelling and what not. It was tough in that sense, but I thought we actually did a lot better in the second half with passing the ball around and doing more of that.”

The play of McLaren and Owunna spearheaded a superb defensive effort by PDS.

“The defensive rock this entire season has been built on them,” said Pettit, whose goalie Shelby Ruf made four saves in the win. “We have got a lot of great individual defenders but when you put them all together, collectively they are even better than the sum of their individual parts. Ella is phenomenal in the air, phenomenal in the tackle, and reads the game. Tochi reads the game really well and covers ground for Ella. Those guys individually just love defending. For them to not give up a goal, make that tackle, get that block — that is their goal. They take real pride in that, so that has been huge.”

Pettit was proud of the way his players rose to the occasion in the championship run.

“I don’t know what it was, we had a couple of tough losses and this has really sharpened our focus,” said Pettit. “I think coming into states, we were struggling even when we were winning. We were struggling to play for 80 minutes from start to finish. We would take our foot off the pedal for 20 minutes. We came into states and everything switched. It was win or go home and we are not done yet. It was 80 minutes, 80 minutes, 80 minutes, which was phenomenal.”

Guiding the Panthers to their first-ever Non-Public state title was phenomenal experience for Pettit.

“It is huge; we have only been here three years and we are definitely ahead of schedule,” said Pettit, whose team finished the fall with a 17-2-3 record. “It was obviously a goal for us. When we came, we had 17 kids and only eight or nine of them played club. I think we had nine wins in the first year so to go from that to this in three years is definitely ahead of schedule. Now we are here and we have to keep it going and build from here. It is exciting.”

In Pettit’s view, building a strong team unity was a huge factor in the squad’s success this fall.

“We focused a lot on the chemistry and the culture and I give the seniors great credit,” says Pettit. “A lot of time for the high school seniors it is, ‘Oh it is my senior year. It is my this, it is my that.’ This group of seniors hasn’t done that at all, they have actually stepped back and said it is about us, it is about we. As a result, all of the younger players have had the room to feel like this is theirs and they have really bloomed because of that.”

Pettit credited senior star Adriana Salzano with playing a key role in creating that positive environment. 

“For someone like that to win, it is fitting because she scored 50 career goals for us and plays wherever we need her,” said Pettit of Salzano. “She leads and is one of those seniors who has allowed everybody else to grow. In preseason, even though she was fitter than everybody else, she would slow down and push everybody else along. It has been huge for her. It is a great sendoff for all of the seniors.”

Brodel, for her part, believes that the squad grew into a family over the fall.

“It is our team bond, we have a great bond, there are no groups or cliques,” said Brodel. “It is just all a big family and that has brought us together on the field.”