Ed Gola knew several players had to step up for his Hopewell Valley Central High boys’ soccer team to have any kind of success this season.
That’s exactly what happened, as the Bulldogs finished 19-5-1 and reached the North Jersey 2 Group III sectional final for the third consecutive year despite graduating 17 seniors last year.
Perhaps no one stepped up bigger than senior Owen Burnett, who made an impact in his only year of varsity play. Playing center back, he not only became a defensive leader, but scored seven goals off of restarts and corner kicks while picking up two assists.
“This was his first year on varsity, partly because of the fact we had so many seniors last year,” Gola said. “He’s very intelligent, very passionate about soccer. He was just a great communicator in the back. He won all the head balls and had great feet. He just had a fantastic year.”
Gola wouldn’t call Burnett a surprise, since he did expect contributions. But the coach was impressed as to just how much he contributed.
“He was the key to our defense,” the coach said. “Not only did he help us to 12 shutouts, but he was involved in the attack as well. He was one of the biggest keys to our success.”
And while Gola was not surprised, Burnett was slightly taken aback by the role he eventually played.
“I think coming into it as my first year of varsity, I didn’t really expect too much,” he said. “I knew I had the capabilities of coming in and making an impact within the squad. I knew I could be a big threat in the air because I’m 6-foot-3, so I’d be going up on corners and restarts. I just tried to make the most of my opportunities in the box and getting my foot on the ball and get some goals. It’s always nice to do.”
Burnett was one of numerous newcomers who helped maintain the Bulldogs success through the mid-decade. His twin brother Jared, who was on varsity but did not play frequently last year, collected 11 goals and 10 assists at forward.
“I love my brother; I knew he had goals in him, and he came up big for us at times,” Owen Burnett said. “Of course it made a difference to me, with him being here. I had a familiar face on the team, I’ve been playing with him in club for my entire life so I know how he plays.”
Another big offensive threat was Ryan Pfau, who had eight goals and six assists combined in his sophomore and junior years before erupting for 13 goals and six assists this season. His emergence helped Max Wills, the team’s most experienced returnee, thrive with 15 goals and 11 assists.
“Ryan Pfau was so energetic and aggressive out at left mid(field),” Gola said. “Max was a great player, but the ability of those other guys to score goals alleviated some of the focus off of him so he was able to do some good things.”
Burnett had high praise for Wills, saying, “He meant everything to us. When he played well, we played well.”
Goalie Domenic Zangrilli and Max De Los Santos also had solid years.
“Max didn’t get any stats but really provided a lot of energy in the midfield and provided a lot of head balls for us,” Gola said. “Some of those unique skill sets that different guys had helped us win games. Our defense was really good, our goalkeeper got better and better.”
Luke Tartaglia helped orchestrate the attack with nine assists to go along with three goals, while Eric Goldberg added three goals and three assists.
With 15 new players on varsity, things started slowly as the Bulldogs were 3-2-1 after two weeks. A win over Notre Dame launched a nine-game winning streak that was snapped by Pennington. At that point, the confidence was instilled.
“We thought there was gonna be some learning curves,” Gola said. “I think we did have a little learning curve at the start. We had to find some things out.”
The coach added that the two biggest keys to success were that every player put the team before the individual, and many of the newcomers had enjoyed success at the JV and club soccer levels. Thus, they knew how to win.
Owen Burnett pointed out that even though there were so many varsity newbies, the team was still confident enough to set a goal of winning a second straight sectional title and move on to the state finals.
“We all rose to the challenge and the occasion, and just put our best foot forward,” Burnett said. “We tried to get a rhythm within the team. Get our play style down, make sure we got the results that we needed. The first few games we had to get used to each other. It took a few games for us to get a regimented flow going. Within the first five games, we switched personnel around and I think that worked a little better for us.”
HoVal’s chance of repeating as NJ2 III champs came to a disappointing end with a 2-1 loss at Mendham in the finals. But it could not take away from the fact that Gola has established a winning program that can survive mass graduation losses.
“I think the talent that comes through in Hopewell is pretty good,” Burnett said. “And you’ve gotta give some credit to the coach. He’s been around for a while now, he knows how to run a team and grind out results.”
Asked what this year’s success says about the program, Gola noted that, “It says that these guys that come in, really see what could develop; and if they work hard, what goals they can reach. I think they strive for that. I was a little concerned about losing so many players. But now I’m not so concerned. We have a pretty deep pool. We’re losing 10, so we’ll have 12 back. We have a good nucleus coming back.”
Which is something he certainly could not say coming into this year.