Hopewell Valley soccer player Max Wills in action last season home against West Windsor-Plainsboro North. (Photo by Mike Schwartz/mikeschwartz.photo.)

Ed Gola was asked what can be done for an encore after his Hopewell Valley Central High School boys soccer team enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in school history by going 20-5 and winning the North Jersey, Section 2 Group III championship.

“I never really thought about it that way,” the coach said with a laugh. “It was a pretty special year last year, we had a lot of great talent. Unfortunately, a lot of that talent has moved on.”

Sixteen seniors, to be exact. Despite those losses, there is still a sense of optimism throughout the program, which won its first sectional title since 2005. The prevailing opinion is that many of the varsity newcomers would have been starters last year had it not been for such an abnormal number of outstanding seniors.

“We are pretty excited by the fact we’re building something new, but we don’t think we’re building something from scratch,” Gola said. “We have the players that can play, they know that they can play. We don’t know how soon it’s gonna develop, but as long as it’s develops sometime in October, then we’ll have a shot.”

A shot at what?

“These guys see no reason why we can’t do some of the same things, or at least try to do some of the same things,” Gola said.

Senior captain and central midfielder Max Wills confirmed those sentiments.

“The goal this season is to win another sectional championship, and I think we’re going to exceed people’s expectations,” Wills said. “Everyone is going to think because we had so many seniors leave we’ll be a much weaker team. All the younger guys just didn’t have the opportunity to play. I think they’re going to step up and be valuable contributors. Our JV team was fantastic last year.”

It was, in fact, undefeated. Gola brought many of the players up during the county and state tournaments so they could experience what it’s like when things go so well.

“I think they know the formula,” the coach said. “The seniors last year had lost in the sectional final the year before. They had that chip on their shoulder. And once you start getting into that mix it gets so exciting. It’s like the Legion team (see story, page 1). Once you get that experience and get into it, you just keep going. So you never know what could happen. We would like another shot. It’s gonna be hard but we have the talent.”

Hopewell Valley soccer player Ryan Pfau in action against Middletown North in the regional finals at home on Nov. 10, 2016. (Photo by Mike Schwartz/mikeschwartz/photo.)

Leading the way is Wills, a four-year varsity player who scored the winning goal against Middletown North in the NJ2 III title game. Wills collected seven goals and 10 assists last year and is the suddenly the team’s veteran leader, though he downplays his role.

“We still have a lot of young, promising, talented players; we just don’t have a lot of varsity experience,” he said. “I’m just sort of there to help them out and show them how the varsity game is played. It’s mostly about the pace of the game. You’ve got to play a little faster, you’ve got to communicate. I’ve got to help them understand how to play a full varsity game at a full tempo. Just act as sort of a mentor.”

Also returning is senior midfielder Ryan Pfau, who had five goals and four assists and set up Wills’ game-winner against Middletown North. Senior Max De Los Santos returns in the back, while the athletic Dominic Zangrilli is a returning goalie. Senior twins Owen and Jared Burnett bring impressive size to the field. Jared is the team’s lone forward in Gola’s 5-4-1 formation, while Owen will defend. Junior Luke Tartaglia, whose father Bob was a standout for some great Hamilton West teams, is the other central midfielder while Gola is still searching for his right midfielder.
Also in the back are juniors Ben Morreale and Ian DeRusha, with one position still to be filled.

Wills feels last year’s success should provide a foundation for this season.

“We have an expectation of winning,” he said. “We know how it feels to win games, and big games and championships, and we want to get that feeling again. It’s all great.”

Gola put some tough scrimmages on the schedule, and during the regular season Hopewell plays non-Colonial Valley Conference powers such as Westfield and Pennington, which enters the season as the nation’s No. 1 ranked team by topdrawersoccer.com. The Bulldogs are also taking an overnight trip and will play Hershey (Pa.) on a Saturday and visit Hershey Park on Sunday (thanks to a co-fundraiser with the girls’ team, which is going to Tennessee).

“We play Pennington at their field on their homecoming so that would be quite a big game if we could pull the upset there,” Wills said. “We’ve never beaten Princeton or Pennington since I’ve been in the program. Winning either of those would be a great way for our senior class to go out, but it’s gonna be tough.”
No one said it would be easy.

“There’s definitely going to be some growing pains,” Gola said. “We have a lot of guys who can play, there’s no question of that. We have some pieces returning who were important to last year’s success and some guys who would have played if it was a normal ebb and flow year. The Pound’s not empty yet.”