Hillsborough High School lost 18 seniors and all 11 starters from its successful 2018 boys soccer team, but 2019 is not going to be a rebuilding year for the Raiders.
They have nine juniors back from its varsity team a year ago and those players are ready for their chance at the highest level of high school soccer. The new seniors have waited their entire scholastic careers for this opportunity.
It will begin on Sept. 4 at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, in Hillsborough’s regular season opener.
“These players know what needs to be done,” said Hillsborough Coach Eric Puma. “But they feel a bit of pressure. They are anxious to continue our success.”
A year ago, Hillsborough finished 16-1-2, won the Skyland Conference’s Delaware Division and earned the Somerset County Tournament title. By record, it was the program’s best season since 1984.
A talented senior class, led by top scorer Justin Dominique and goalkeeper Nick Burd, sparked the banner campaign. But the juniors did play a fair amount off the bench, so they are not taking over as a completely inexperienced group.
That’s why the team, as well as Puma, is confident they can maintain last year’s standard.
Puma even thinks the 2019 Raiders can go further in the state sectional tournament than its 2018 club. In 2018, Hillsborough, as the No. 3 seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 4 sectional tournament, lost in the first round to Middletown High School South, 2-1.
“I expect us to compete for the conference and county this year,” Puma said. “But we can contend for all three titles.”
Puma’s new senior class fills almost the entire field. Jake Laifer and Henry Cruz will try to generate offense up front. Tyler Watson, Christian Tyson and Alex Ford will try to control the ball in the midfield area. Josh Hartman, Austin Blanke, Jamie Moni and Brendan Sheehan should build a formidable back line.
None of them are varsity standouts just yet, but they do have a group identity. Puma says they are more fiery, emotional and positive than last year’s group.
“They create that culture amongst each other in training,” he said.
The biggest challenge for these Raiders will be establishing a growth mindset. For these nine seniors, 2019 will be their only chance to run the varsity team. So they will be tempted to just focus on results, especially in a short, roughly seven week regular season.
But like any team, they have to avoid merely focusing on results.
“We need to get better every game so we can win our last game,” Puma said.
Puma was clear that the Raiders will go for it this year, just like they did last year, but the coach will not hand the keys to younger players just to build their driving skills for future seasons.
That said, he will probably be able to build for the future at the same time. The varsity team will need two starters from its underclassmen group, and an entire bench.
So in 2019, the Raiders may be able to pull off a rare balancing act in high school sports: winning now and building for the future.
“There are still questions to be answered,” Puma said. “But we’ll look for juniors and sophomores to find their places.”