When four Hamilton Township residents enter their junior year of high school next month, they will have a lot of good memories to write about in English class if assigned an essay on “How I spent my summer vacation.”
The quartet of Tristan Spadola, Thomas Kozemchak, Donovan Davis and CJ Uche were all members of the Match Fit Soccer Academy’s U16 Black team, which became the first Match Fit team to reach a US Club Soccer National Championship Tournament in 10 years. They made the most of the opportunity, winning the national title. Match Fit beat FC Marin from San Francisco July 24, 2-1, in the National Cup Final. Uche scored the winning goal.
Founded in 2000, Match Fit had teams advance from 2004-06 before entering the USSF Development Academy from 2007-14. During those years the West Windsor-based program was prohibited from competing in the Region 1 Tournament. After sweeping five straight games in late June, the U16 Blacks were region champs and headed to Aurora, Col., for the nationals July 22-24.
“For us to be the first team since 2006 is a great accomplishment since Match Fit is such a good and accomplished club,” said Davis, a varsity starter at center-back for Princeton Day School. “I think it really means a lot for everyone on the team as we went through a tough drought when some kids got injured and we weren’t playing out best.
“Everyone knew how high our ceiling was for this year and for it to finally come together was unbelievable. I know CJ and I have been talking about this since we were young. Then joining with great players from all over and those guys having the same goals and finally getting it done is a great feeling.”
Uche, a starting midfielder for PDS for the past two seasons, agreed with his teammate, saying, “It means a lot. It’s something special to have hard work and commitment get you to such a stage. It’s really a testament to the training and hours we’ve put in on the training ground.”
Kozemchak, who was Steinert’s JV goalie last year, feels the win provides excellent exposure.
“We worked hard all season to get to this point and now we get to showcase ourselves to the country,” he said.
The Hamilton players have been teammates off and on since their youth.
Spadola, a starting center-midfielder for Steinert last year, knew Davis as a tot due to family friends, and met Uche and Kozemchak at age 7 when they were selected to the Mercer United Team. When that team split up, Spadola moved to GAK and then played for the Players Development Academy in Somerset for a year. He switched to Medford for two seasons but the travel was too much and he decided on Match Fit.
“I really didn’t talk or see much of CJ and Donovan for a while, we went to different schools,” Spadola said. “I tried out for Match Fit because it was right near my house, I made the team, now we are all very close.”
Davis, who played his freshman year at Hamilton West, called Uche “my brother on and off the field, we’ve been best friends since we’ve met playing soccer.” Those two and Kozemchak pretty much rose through the ranks together, playing for the Upper Makefield Patriots in Pennsylvania and the Princeton Football Club. Match Fit President Malcolm Murphy approached the trio about joining Match Fit, where they were re-united with Spadola.
Entering the season, the players had confidence in their ability to go far, but knew that they had to pick things back up after a mild letdown followed a strong start.
“From the beginning, we knew this team had the talent to get there, it was just a case of putting it all together when it meant the most,” said Kozemchak, who was unable to compete in the nationals. “We hit a little bit of a slump after losing in the State Cup, but there was never any doubt about whether we could win the regionals if we played to our potential.”
Spadola admitted that losses in the State Cup and New Jersey Cup semifinals took a lot out of the team.
“But we picked it up again,” he said. “I knew we had the potential to go to nationals all along. We are a great team. Once we started losing some games and then we picked it back up and it was very hard to beat us. Then I knew nationals was only a couple steps away.”
Uche added, “I’ve always believed that this team had the talent to accomplish great things. However, coming into regionals we were in a bit of a lull after starting the season on such a high. Before going to regionals, I was certain if we could start getting some good performances in just to boost morale and confidence, we would give ourselves a good chance to make a run.”
Match Fit did just that at the PDA Complex in Somerset, outscoring five opponents 10-1. It started with a 2-0 win over New Jersey’s STA Norris United NPL 99 team, followed by a 3-1 victory over One7 of North Carolina, and a 1-0 triumph against Parsippany. The outstanding defense continued with a 2-0 win over GPS of Massachusetts in the semifinals, and a 2-0 win over TSF of Little Falls in the finals.
“While our main goal as an organization is to foster the development of these players on and off to pitch to attain the next level of collegiate soccer, part of that development is the understanding of the commitment necessary to win events, such as the US Club Regionals,” said coach Luke Tyler, the Match Fit Talent Identification Director. “The boys executed the week perfectly, staying focused, disciplined and committed as a unit. These boys have earned their place at Nationals, and we will again attend the event with the intent to achieve ultimate success and bring back a National Championship to New Jersey.”
In breaking down the regionals, Davis felt that Match Fit “did an outstanding job of playing its game.”
“It was some of the best soccer we played in a while,” he said. “With us being a possession-based team and having to play five games in four days, keeping possession really helped. I think everyone bought into the system and took self responsibility and pride in their one-v-one match ups all over the field.
“We had a great shape defending, and were able to counter-attack well out of our shape. But when it wasn’t on, we were able to hold, relax and keep the ball. The main thing I think is, everyone wanted the same thing, the regional title, so whatever needed to be done we did to get that goal accomplished.”
Spadola said he never saw the team play as well as it did in the regionals.
“After losing games before regionals, our coach had a talk with us, and it woke us up,” he said. “So our last game before regionals, we stepped it up. We came out strong and we won. We carried that attitude into regionals and were just unbeatable.”
Kozamchek agreed with Davis that unselfish team play “was what made us so good,” and Uche felt that “everything just clicked.”
“We came to regionals with an elevated level of play; everyone held themselves to a higher standard of competition which translated to team success,” Uche said. “We were able to establish great defensive shape that made it tremendously difficult for opponents to break us down. Also, we were able to be clinical in front of goal with the chances we created, which allowed for close bouts to open up and make games a bit more comfortable for us in the end.”
No matter what the results at nationals, the players feel the experience will help extensively when they return to high school soccer next month.
“I welcome the opportunity to experience playing at a national level,” Spadola said. “You’re playing where college coaches have never seen you play and playing at such high quality level of soccer. This will help me a lot for the upcoming high school season. I need to keep the same mentality I’ve been playing with and bring it over to Steinert.”
The PDS tandem was also looking forward to facing top-notch competition.
“This experience will be immensely beneficial for both the team and for myself,” Uche said. “As a team an opportunity like this will build upon team chemistry and give us the experience and confidence to compete for multiple titles next year. As an individual this experience will help me as a leader going into the high school season. As an upperclassman with the experience of what it takes to compete in high-pressure situations against good oppositions, it will help me lead younger players on and off the pitch, especially during tournament play.”
“It will be huge not only for high school but the bigger picture in college,” Davis said. “Being able to play on such a big stage now will only benefit us for the next level. The experience will be great and lots of fun, going into high school now knowing what it takes to be one of the best in the country I’m hoping me and CJ can translate that to our high school team.”