It was no surprise when the West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North boys’ soccer team came on strong to force double overtime in its Mercer County Tournament opener.
The Knights have shown resiliency all season, and eighth-seeded WW-P North’s mettle was to be tested again after a 2-1 loss to ninth-seeded Princeton Day School on a controversial penalty kick in the MCT.
“It’s brutal,” said Knights head coach Trevor Warner. “Both teams played really hard. It’s what an 8 and 9 matchup is. It’s very even. It’s very unfortunate how it ended.”
WW-P North trailed, 1-0, at halftime before they straightened themselves out. They returned a different team in the second half when Vedav Varadarjan notched the equalizer off a pass sent in by Mark Chiriac.
“In the first half, Coach Warner told us we were playing too soft,” said Alex Quezada, the junior captain. “We weren’t winning those 50-50 balls. In the second half, we came out with more energy and more desire to win the ball and we started to win those balls and get more chances. It was unfortunate we couldn’t finish more of those chances.”
PDS couldn’t score either. The Knights defense tightened and played shutout soccer through the second half, first overtime and into the final minutes of the second overtime when a North foul was whistled that Warner said was outside the box and wasn’t a clear-cut foul.
All year, the Knights have been asked to make adaptations. Players have been moved around the field to take the place of a litany of injuries that Warner says has been more prevalent than any of his 23 years of coaching. Oliver Chiriac is a senior who moved to the left back for the county contest, then slid to center back due to an injury and responded well to the challenge.
“I felt like I played pretty well, but it wasn’t just me,” Chiriac said. “We had other guys step up like Tommy Doyle and Nick Pugliese. They played left and right back when Julian (Zhang) and Skandan (Venkatraman) were injured. These injuries have really affected our team. Even though we lost, we played very tough game against PDS.”
Every game seems to bring a new challenge and every week a new injury. The Knights have leaned on their returning players to get them through it all and be anchors in the ever-switching lineup.
“I’m playing in pretty much the same position, just the players around me are different,” Chiriac said. “I’ve had to step up my game and play a little harder. It hasn’t changed position wise, but mentally and physically, me and my brother and the rest of the seniors who played varsity last year, have to step up more than last year.”
The Knights got a glimpse of their potential early in the year. They were still healthy when they met rival High School South and earned their third straight shutout win to start the season, but that was also the start of their injury misfortune with Evan Robinson lost for the year with a broken rib.
“That was one of our greatest victories,” Chiriac said. “But Evan Robinson fractured his rib in that game. He’s out another three weeks still. That was one of the games where everything went our way, and we got the result we wanted.”
Midway through the year, WW-P North lost Tommy Bartell, a captain and centerpiece of the program. With every injury, they have called up less experienced players to fill in and juggled their lineup.
“We just try to encourage them,” Quezada said. “With the upperclassmen, we can set the example for them. We can show them our way of playing, with quick passing and quick counters.”
That style paid off early on with a 5-0-3 start through the first eight games of the season. That Knights gained confidence. Before the season and the injury bug hit, the returning Knights weren’t sure how good they could be. North graduated current St. John’s University player Vincenzo Pugliese, and his goal scoring was irreplaceable with one player. They graduated other important role players and have filled in with former JV players moving up and others stepping into larger roles. Brendan Kerins stepped in brilliantly at starting goalkeeper after being a back-up for years.
“He had very little experience, but he’s shown tremendous improvement,” Warner said. “It’s beyond words, especially early in the season when he made point blank saves and we did stay unbeaten through eight games.”
Zhang has been in a bigger spot and Pugliese moved into the lineup seamlessly on defense. Venkatraman was brought up to replace Bartell. Ndzalama Baloyi was a JV player a year ago, and he was challenged to stick with Wesley Leggett, PDS’ leading goal scorer.
“We had a special assignment given to Ndzalama,” Warner said. “He did a fantastic job on the kid. Ndzalama came out for 20 minutes when he got hurt, but looking at overtime and regulation, he did a fantastic job. He welcomed the assignment. He wanted it.”
Warner has seen others respond to tough assignments. Doyle, who played JV last year, has given them a lift with a huge goal against Steinert in a 2-1 win and remarkable defense of WW-P South’s top scorer in the shutout.
“He does anything you ask him to do,” Warner said.
And there are the stars of the future like Mark Chiriac, who has been a varsity player since his freshman year. He’s primed for two more great seasons after this year.
Quezada still has a year left as well. He is in his second year of playing for the Knights varsity. He could not play his freshman year because of a commitment to the New York Red Bulls Academy, but when they moved him to their practice squad, he took his talents to WW-P North.
“I feel like in high school soccer, you can have a lot more fun,” Quezada said. “It’s competitive, but it’s still fun. You have a chance to express yourself without having too much pressure.”
The Knights wouldn’t mind him expressing himself even more. He’s gotten more vocal this year, and he has been used all over the field though he can help the most as an attacking player for a team that needs more offense.
Quezada figures to be more assertive as a leader next year when he is a senior. He can help step in for graduating players like Chiriac, who took on leadership duties in the back with so many changes around him, and the changes have continued to come even as WW-P North headed into its MCT consolation game against Lawrence and into preparation for its North Jersey 2, Group 3 state tournament opener as the No. 10 seed at No. 7 seed Irvington.
They can take plenty of positives out of their regular-season games and even their MCT loss that dropped them to 7-6-3.
“In terms of wins and losses, it has been a roller coaster,” Chiriac said. “In terms of style of play, we’ve been playing well and we’ve been trying our best. Sometimes we get unlucky. We’ve been the better team sometimes, but just didn’t finish or get the result we wanted.”
The Knights were best when they were healthiest, but they haven’t backed down from the challenges. Now they are confident that the adversity they faced and the resiliency they showed will benefit them in the end.
“Right now we’re really motivated to try to replicate the ‘07 year of North, where they were the 12 seed and they ended up winning the section,” Quezada said. “We really want to replicate that. That’s our motivation.”