PRINCETON: PHS reaches CJ IV soccer final

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Princeton High School's Jun Hasegawa moves the ball downfield hoping to create a scoring opportunity against Monroe High School during the Little Tigers' 2-1 victory on Wednesday.

By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor
MONROE – Wayne Sutcliffe could see something special in Nick Petruso before the freshman even arrived at Princeton High School.
“We knew last summer when we were training in alumni pickup games that he had something special,” the Princeton High boys’ soccer coach said. “It was the same way with (former players) Zach Halladay and Aiden Passanante and Sam Kotowski. These kids are playing up against senior level players and college players and they’re not bringing the game down.
“So I have known about him for three years. We just brought him along slowly. We’re a senior heavy team and we had a plethora of strikers. It was a matter of grooming him in and letting him earn his time and he did that at the JV and freshman levels.”
After starting the season on the freshman team and eventually moving up to the junior varsity, Petruso was called up to the varsity level in early October and has not disappointed.
The freshman connected on  two goals on Wednesday when the third-seeded Little Tigers edged second-seeded Monroe, 2-1, in the Central Jersey, Group IV state semifinals.
With the victory, Princeton advanced to play at top-seeded Hunterdon Central in Friday’s 4 p.m. Central Jersey, Group  IV final. The Red Devils (16-3) are the defending sectional and state Group IV champion.
A victory in the state sectional final would send the little Tigers to the Group IV semifinals on Tuesday.
“At first, the practices were hard,” Petruso said of his move up to the varsity level. “I didn’t know any of the players and they didn’t know me. When I started playing, I would sit on the bench and then I started getting into the games. Then I started to start some games. I had been on the freshman and JV teams. The more I was with these guys the more it motivated me.”
Petruso’s presence made all the difference in the triumph over Monroe. He broke a scoreless tie with just over 23 minutes left to play in the second half before he struck with his second –and eventual winning — goal three minutes later to give the Little Tigers a 2-0 lead.
Monroe would score with just over one minute left to cut the lead to 2-1.
“We had some injuries and we brought him around in training and some 11v11 side games and he really held his own and stood out,” said Sutcliffe, whose team improved to 15-5-1 with the victory. “He helps everybody else raise their level. Because if a young player is performing like that, even the most senior player at the senior level has to do better.”
Princeton has plenty of senior experience on this year’s squad. The Little Tigers have 15 seniors on the roster and that experience has helped them through a sectional tournament run that started with victories over Middletown South and Long Branch before they eliminated Monroe.
“We have enough people who have been around a lot and involved with the team,” senior Dean Patel said after the Little Tigers’ win over Long Branch. “Myself, Quentin (Pompliano), Drew (Beamer), we have plenty of players who have been around and know what we have to do to win games.
“Our freshman year was the year we played in the state final. It was a very motivating year. The first year we come in I was at the state final and there were hundreds of people there. We don’t get that in club so it would be nice to end our career like that.”
Patel is one of the Princeton seniors that bided his time and eventually moved into a key role on the field.
“I have only been with the varsity since my junior year,” Patel said. “But I have been involved and practicing. My grade, the group itself, when we got in we were looking up to playing at this level. Now it is our senior year and we have to make every minute count.”
The victory over Monroe sent Princeton to its first Group IV state sectional title game. The Little Tigers moved up to Group IV in 2015 and had not advanced beyond the sectional semifinals the last two years.
This year’s team has taken on the look of a championship team more and more as the season has progressed. Princeton reached the Mercer County Tournament semifinals and is now in the state sectional final. The team has seen its senior group become better leaders over the course of the season.
“They really have,” Sutcliffe said. “That has grown over the course of the season. We have 15 seniors and many of them have played at the club level since U10 and here at the high school for four years. They had a great freshmen season when they went undefeated. They have had a long journey and I think our leadership is not at its best, but it is better than at any point this season. And that is what you need.
“They are a very close group off the field. They’re all great kids. They are all about the game.”
And now the group has a chance to play for a championship, which is something Princeton teams have made a habit of doing.
“That’s kind of in the DNA around here,” Sutcliffe said. “Learn how to play well enough to nick a goal or play well and win and advance. That is something we have talked a lot about and prepared for in training. We didn’t do it in the MCT semis but we’re working on it to get better.”