By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor
UNION – The Princeton High boys’ soccer team had hoped to make history by winning the program’s first Group IV state tournament title.
Instead, the Little Tigers will have to settle for becoming the first team in the program’s history to reach the Group IV championship game.
“It was such a great run,” said Princeton coach Wayne Sutcliffe, whose team dropped a 3-1 decision to Kearny in the state final last Sunday at Kean University. “It was so much fun. I was so proud of the way the team matured and certain guys whose level maybe at mid-season needed to get better and were honest with each other about that and they really did a fantastic job meeting the demands of it all and believing. These guys believed. We won five straight Group IV games against three of the top teams in New Jersey. I am so proud of the way we battled tonight.”
Princeton, which lost in the Group III title game in 2014, got hot and made a strong run through the Central Jersey, Group IV tournament, knocking off second-seeded Monroe and top-seeded Hunterdon Central along the way. Hunterdon Central was the defending Group IV state champion.
After defeating Washington Township in the Group IV semifinals, the Little Tigers ran into undefeated Kearny and gave the Kardinals all they could handle.
“We got unlucky today,” senior Quentin Pompliano said. “They’re a good team. We had an off day. On another day we might have beaten them. They got one breakthrough and it kind of went downhill from there. I am proud of everyone on my team. I’m proud to say that I could play with them for four years. I’m just going to miss playing with them.”
The game was a scoreless tie until Jose Escandon scored 10 minutes into the second half to give Kearny the lead. He added a goal in a free kick 21 minutes later to give the Kardinals a 2-0 lead.
But Princeton responded and got to within a goal when Drew Beamer scored with less than two minutes to play. The Little Tigers threatened and had a couple of chances to score in the closing minute before Kearny delivered a goal in the closing seconds.
The result gave Kearny its 17th state group championship and the first since 2004. Kearny ended the year with a 19-0-5 record.
“I’m so proud,” said Sutcliffe, whose team finished the season with a 17-6-2 mark. “The back four played beautifully. Every guy, when (Escandon) would gravitate out wide, every guy did as well as you could possibly do on a player of that level. On the front half, we really didn’t start clicking until the end. We really weren’t finding one another well enough when it mattered most.
“We had great urgency after we conceded and that is not uncharacteristic of this team at all. There were so many close ones in there. It was just a little too little a little too late.”
The defeat closed out the careers of Princeton’s senior class. The players were freshmen when the Little Tigers played for the Group III state title in 2014 and eased the transition to Group IV the next season.
“I can’t say enough about their four years in the team,” Sutcliffe said. “They came in their freshman year in 2014 and they were undefeated. They just kept getting better and better. Their commitment in the summer time and in the weight room and especially during the season. This is the 14th week straight that we have been at it six days a week. And that is just kind of part of it. They achieved something that no other PHS boys’ soccer team ever achieved. And that, I think, is their legacy. And for that they can be proud.”
The Little Tigers lost in the first round of the state sectional tournament last year and were determined to make a better showing this time around. They not only claimed the program’s first Central Jersey, Group IV sectional title, but nearly came away with a state group championship.
“We lost some great players from last year like Sam Serxner, Andrew Goldsmith and Alex Ratzan, who are all playing college soccer now,” Pompliano said. “Not a lot of people had faith in us at first and we overcame all of that and out together a good season in the end.
“I thought we had a little bit of an uncharacteristic start to our season. In past years when I have been on the team we have always come out really strong. This year was a little bit different. We took a loss to Westfield, a shocking loss to Ewing, and we lost to Pennington and twice to Hopewell. It happened. But we ended up changing our formation after we lost to Hopewell and it worked wonders. We got to a state final.”
The Princeton roster was heavy on seniors this season, including Beamer, whose goal in the state final was his team-high 22nd of the year.
“It’s so fitting that Drew got one tonight to pull the game to 2-1,” Sutcliffe said. “There are a lot of stories in this season, but he is the engine of the team. He’s absolutely fantastic, including tonight.”
So, while Princeton fell short in its quest for a state title, the team can walk away knowing they helped make school history.
“It’s a whole new level of success,” Sutcliffe said. “We’re Group IV and we’re arguably the smallest Group IV school in the tournament. So our player pool isn’t as large but we have so much quality. I can’t say enough. It’s one of my favorite moments in my career here. The whole run, especially when we beat Monroe and we beat Hunterdon Central and we beat Washington Township and just getting to this game. It’s one of my most cherished moments with respect to it all.”
By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor