GRAND FINAL: Princeton High boys soccer player Felipe Matar Grandi, right, controls the ball during recent action. Last Saturday, senior midfielder/forward Matar Grandi scored a second-half goal for second-seeded PHS as it lost 2-1 to top-seeded and undefeated Pennington in of the Mercer County tournament final last Saturday. PHS, now 16-2, will now compete in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Central Jersey Group 4 section where it is seeded first and host 16th-seeded Montgomery in a top-seeded contest tour on October 25. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
For the Princeton High boys soccer team, it was a test they had been shooting for all fall.
At 16-1 with 15 shutouts, PHS was on a collision course with undefeated and nationally ranked Pennington, and the powerhouses met in the Mercer County Tournament final last Saturday.
Before the game played at Hopewell Valley High, the second-seeded Tigers were not intimidated by the prospect of facing the top-seeded and powerful Red Hawks, who entered the day at 12-0 with 72 goals for and only three against. .
“Our guys are really confident. They were excited to play a ranked team like that – they wanted to test their skills,” PHS head coach Ryan Walsh said. “Our guys play on high-level club teams, so it’s not like they haven’t seen guys with that kind of talent.”
Facing the talented Red Hawks, PHS relied on its stingy defensive unit to maintain its superb play.
“Our biggest point was just our defensive shape; we’ve been really good all year at keeping good defensive shape,” Walsh said. “That’s one of the reasons why we don’t have a lot of goals against. Pennington has a very powerful offense, they throw up a lot of numbers, so our task was just to stay in shape and not strain ourselves too much. This made it very difficult for them to get good scoring chances.
In the first half, PHS made things difficult for Pennington, stifling the Red Hawks until giving up a late goal.
“We kept our shape really well and on the goal they scored we were getting ready to counter and we pushed a little too forward and lost the ball,” Walsh said. “We stretched a bit, and that’s how they scored their goal five minutes from time. On top of that, we were doing a really good job.
At halftime, Walsh’s message to his players was to stay the course.
“I told the guys to keep defensive shape and have confidence with the ball,” Walsh said. “We were a little shaken in the first half when we had the ball. We panicked a little. I think our guys really gained confidence realizing they could play with them, and that confidence showed in the second half.
Midway through the second half, PHS tied the game at 1-1 as senior midfielder/forward Felipe Matar Grandi found the back of the net.
“Felipe scored a great goal, but the build-up to the game was just phenomenal, our whole midfield really took over this game,” Walsh said. “Archie (Smith) and Harvey (Smith) played phenomenally in the second half. Felipe, Azariah (Breitman) and Pasquale (Carusone) went at it in the first 25 minutes of the half. We kind of made our way there.
The high-stakes battle appeared to be heading into overtime, but Pennington scored a goal in the final moments of regulation to earn a 2-1 victory and claim its eighth straight MCT crown.
“Both teams were playing really well, it was a display from two of the best teams in the state,” Walsh said. “I thought we were heading into overtime, but this team can score at any time. We were killing this match to reach overtime. On their goal, the central defender made a superb play. He came forward and put our backs in a bad position and their big Czech striker Tomas (Ludvik) made a superb run.
PHS, now 16-2, will now look to make another big tournament run as it begins play in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Central Jersey Group 4 section where it is seeded first and will host Montgomery, 16th seed. a first-round contest on October 25.
“I told our guys there was no better way to prepare for a state tournament than to play a team like Pennington, and not just play against them but play with them “Walsh said. “The match went back and forth, it wasn’t a one-sided match. They should take advantage of it for our next tournament which starts on Wednesday. It helps that we played so well, but a loss makes the guys want to win the next tournament even more.ent.”