By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor
GLASSBORO – Princeton High School has enjoyed plenty of success in Wayne Sutcliffe’s 20-plus seasons as the head boys’ soccer coach.
The Little Tigers have won two state championships under his watch. But in all the tight games the team has played over the years, they’ve never had to endure a final 10 minutes like they did on Tuesday night in the state Group IV semifinals.
“I can’t remember a team really coming at us in the last 10 like that,” said Sutcliffe, whose Princeton team held on to defeat Washington Township, 1-0, in the state semifinals at Rowan University. “I can’t remember that ever happening. So credit to Patrick (Jacobs) and Ian (Jacobs) and (Noah) Middlekauf and Jun (Hasagawa) and (Thomas) Reid. And also (Quentin Pompliano) with his ability. It’s those guys and Quentin’s speed and athleticism to get to the ball as well. They were amazing.”
After a scoreless first half, Princeton struck when Atticus Lynch scored off a rebound of a shot by Nick Petruso with 27 minutes left to play.
From there, the defense did the rest as the Little Tigers advanced to their first Group IV state final. Princeton, which is now 17-5-1, will face undefeated Kearny (18-0-5) for the group championship on Sunday at 3 p.m. at Kean University.
Kearny advanced when the Hudson County school edged Bridgewater-Raritan, 5-4, in penalty kicks in the Group IV semifinals on Tuesday evening at Franklin High School. The teams went to the penalty kicks after ending in a scoreless tie.
Kearny seeks its 17th state group title. It last won a group state championship in 2004.
“The ball came across and Nick took a great crack and it hit the kid and landed right at my feet,” Lynch said of the game’s only goal. “I just kicked it. I had a brother play for Princeton, Michael was a captain, and he came to the game today from New York. It just means everything for me. I’ve always looked up to him playing.”
Princeton withheld a furious rush from the Minutemen, who had four corners and a free kick from just outside the 18 — all while Princeton was holding the a one-goal lead. Patrick Jacobs finished the game with five saves, each one bigger than the one before.
“That was tough,” said Jacobs, who posted his second straight shutout in goal. “With that much time left and being a state semifinal they had to come out and give everything they had. We had to sit back at that point and they just brought everything forward. Their height was really threatening. We had to match up well and we did that all night.”
The two teams seemed to be feeling each other out for much of the first half before Lynch broke the ice with his goal.
“That goal was great,” Jacobs said. “Our whole team felt that and the fans felt that. I think we needed that and it helped us finish out the game. As soon as that goal went in, I think they felt a sense of urgency and had to get back in the game. They brought everything they had.”
Princeton’s run through the state tournament has now included victories over both Washington Township and Hunterdon Central, who had combined to win the last three Group IV state titles. The Little Tigers have won three straight games away from home and in their five state tournament games they have outscored the opposition, 11-2.
“It’s been amazing,” said Jacobs. “Last year, losing in the first round was tough. Nobody expected that. And nobody is expecting what we’re doing now. We know we’re the team that is going to go all the way and win it. Beating Monroe, that was a really good win for us and showed us what we can do as a team. Going through all of these tough games against ranked teams, every game we have been underdogs.
“We’ve had back to back shutouts against top-notch teams, Hunterdon Central and Washington Township. We’re a group mostly of seniors with a few juniors here. The whole defense held up really well. We battle every game and we’re the best defense out there.”
Jacobs and the Princeton defense have been at their best when it matters most. The team has picked up its level of play during the state tournament, with Tuesday night’s effort being the best one yet.
“Patrick was the Man of the Match for us,” Sutcliffe said. “He didn’t drop any of those close ones. He had some shaky moments in the first half of our campaign and he is not having those anymore. That’s the best part.”
Added Jacobs: “The final 10 minutes always go by slow. Every time you look at the clock it looks like it hasn’t moved. They brought all their big guys in on the corner kicks and that was tough to handle but we prepared for it all week. We matched up well all game. And that free kick at the end, we had a five-man wall and luckily it didn’t go high. I am glad I held onto that.”
Lynch came through with the goal, which was his third of the season. The junior was not the player Princeton might have suspected would get the game-winning goal in a state semifinal, but Sutcliffe isn’t surprised he came through.
“We thought somebody was going to get one,” Sutcliffe said. “He’s a spark. He just brings an industrial passion and work-rate to the team every day. That’s why he is one of the most improved players on this team. He’s done so well and I am so happy for him.”
Now Princeton will get to play for a state title for the first time since moving up to Group IV three years ago. The team has won two Group III state titles but has yet to earn one at the Group IV level.
“It’s extraordinary.,” Sutcliffe said. “You become a little surprised about it. But we’re a good team and we’ve been around for a long time. I don’t think there is very much difference between Group 3 and Group 4.”
By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor