After going from four wins and fourteen losses to undefeated state champions in just three years, Pennington’s varsity boys’ soccer team is on everyone’s watch.
“With the preseason ranking of being number 1 in the country, we know that that has expectations and people are going to be ready for us,” says head coach Chad Bridges.
Last year, the boys snagged their second Mercer County Tournament title and won the NJISAA Prep A championship for the first time, beating out St. Benedict’s, who had won the title for the last 27 years. They also tied for the MCT title with Princeton in 2016.
These wins, and their 2016 score of 16 wins, 0 losses, and 3 ties, propelled the team to a number 1 preseason ranking on TopDrawerSoccer’s Fall 2017 National Fab 50.
“Everyday we’re working to get better,” says Bridges. “We’re not going out there with the idea of, ‘Oh, this is what happened last year, so it’s going to happen again.’ We’re out there saying, ‘We’re going to prepare for the first game of the year and we’re excited about the opportunity to get going.’”
Pennington challenged themselves to a difficult schedule last year with games against Peddie, Blair, and the Hill School, and it certainly paid off. “It was just a buildup. It was a combination of a very talented squad. We had the focus and the energy,” says Bridges.
Rising senior and star player Ibrahima Diop has a strategy to deal with the pressure for the upcoming season. “You forget everything that happened last year. You focus on this year and you try to be better,” says Diop.
Diop has been instrumental in Pennington’s ascent. He transferred to Pennington last year as a junior but quickly became known for his “combination of speed and power and precision,” says Bridges. However, there is a bigger and more important reason why Diop has proved himself indispensable to the Red Raiders.
“He raises the game of all of his teammates. He has that unique ability to make everybody else around him better,” says Bridges. “We’ve always had talented teams at Pennington in our boys’ soccer program, but having someone with Ibrahima’s ability to raise the level of everyone around, that’s what gave us the opportunity to knock off St. Benedict’s after their 27-year run as state champions.
“He finished the season last year with 32 goals and 14 assists. He could have had 50 goals if he wanted to, but he wanted to get other people involved. That was a mentality that was so crucial to our success last year.”
Diop believes that the chemistry among the players as they work together is the team’s strength.
“Everyone tried to push each other and everyone was important for the team,” says Diop. “It was our force last year.”
Diop hails from St. Louis, Senegal. Bridges heard of his masterful playing many years ago through a Senegalese friend that received his doctorate from Georgetown University. The friend has been a teacher in Senegal for many years and has been interested in providing his students with the opportunity to study in the United States as he did. For that reason, he and Bridges remained in contact.
Diop was the first student to benefit from this relationship. Bridges knew Diop wanted to receive a stronger education as well as play soccer on a more advanced level. Thanks to the success of Diop’s time at Pennington, two more Senegalese boys have received the chance to attend Pennington this year: a sophomore and a freshman.
In recent years, Pennington has had soccer players from South America and Europe as well. All of Pennington’s faculty began to look beyond New Jersey and beyond the United States in order to search for more international students that could help to increase diversity at Pennington and could benefit from an American education. “With the support of the admissions office, I was able to connect with international organizations that have tremendous student athletes that want to get an education in the United States,” says Bridges.
Bridges credits the team’s senior leadership for stepping forward and being a part of Pennington’s remarkable turnaround. He names Max Pinado, Eric Broadway, Matt Paragamian, and Jared Panson, who will be senior captain this year, as influential to each game and to the season’s tone.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have some outstanding boys who feel like they want to work hard because they want the team to achieve some things,” shares Bridges. “If they’re working as part of the team, then the team’s going to be successful. The minute someone starts to think this is all about ‘me me me,’ that’s where a team will fall flat.”
Bridges is going into his 8th year of coaching varsity soccer at Pennington; before that, he coached the middle school team. He is also the co-founder of Next Level Soccer Academy, a club based in Pennington that was created in 2007. He has been playing soccer since he was 6 years old and played for four years at Drew University.
Bridges is backed by two assistant coaches: Billy Hawkey, who is going into his third year guiding the team, and newcomer Chandler Fraser-Pauls, who will start as assistant coach this year. All three coaches are Pennington alumni: Bridges graduated in 1996, and both Hawkey and Fraser-Pauls are from the class of 2010.
The Pennington Red Raiders will play their first game on their home turf field, facing up against Mercersburg on Sept. 9. They will travel to play Delran on Sept. 12 before coming back home for a game against Lawrenceville on Sept. 15. The game against local rival Hun will take place on Sept. 19.