Ava Tillman

Ava Tillman needs to keep busy.

“For sure,” the Hopewell Valley Central High senior said. “I need to be always be doing something.”

It’s that way in life, and on the soccer pitch.

Tillman brings a bevy of skills to the Bulldogs, but finding her a position has been a little tough due to her 5-foot-3 frame. Coach John McGinley has played her at both outside attacker and center-midfield, although the latter is usually where taller players roam in order to get all-important headers.

Center-mid is also where Tillman can keep busy.

“I do love both positions but I’ve always had a particular interest in the center,” she said. “I feel there’s so much more going on, there’s a lot more action. You get to distribute the ball. When you’re on the wing, sometimes it comes to your side, sometimes you just have to wait.”

Wherever Tillman is, McGinley knows he has a dangerous offensive player.

“She might be the most skilled player we have. She has great feet,” the veteran coach said. “It’s not that she’s not willing, but on balls in the air she’s not that tall. But she’s quick and she’s skilled. This summer she showed a lot of signs of improvement. Instead of trying to beat one more kid going to goal, she’s taking the shot. She’s got a good shot. She’s got power, she’s got strength. I think this year she’s starting to unleash that power in her shot and is finishing much better.”

Tillman started her athletic career in gymnastics, but wearied of that. She switched to soccer and played in the Hopewell rec leagues and the Next Level Soccer Association club team in Pennington. Upon arriving at high school, Ava decided to add basketball and lacrosse to her itinerary, but that quickly changed.

“Basketball wasn’t really for me, you know, with my height and everything,” she said with a laugh. “I wanted to stay in shape for soccer and ran winter track, and really liked it. So I quit lacrosse and ran spring track also.”

As a freshman, Tillman played mostly on the JV and saw brief time on varsity before making the big team as a sophomore. Playing time was scarce, as she sat behind such talented scorers as Katarina Nilsson, Julia Obst and Sam Barnes her first two seasons.

Tillman cherished the opportunity to learn from them.

“I think it was actually a super positive experience,” she said. “It was just an amazing group of girls with the talent and the culture they built around the team. Going from a position of watching that and being a part of it just from the sidelines, into finally becoming what I saw by actually playing on the field, was like a really good transition for me.”

Not once did Tillman say to herself, “I’m better than they are.”

“Some people are just thrown into starting their freshman year, but if you have that it’s sort of hard to see the leadership that some of the best players we had were showing,” she said. “For me to see that and have a couple years to apply it to myself was really good for me personally. I don’t think I was ready.”

Tillman notched an assist as a sophomore and collected two goals and four assists last season. She will be counted on to increase those numbers this season, provided she can overcome the overuse injury that shut her down in preseason.

“Ava’s one of the hardest working kids we have,” McGinley said. “She’s got great technical skill with the ball, she’s very creative. We’re still trying to figure where she will play a little bit, but she’s growing in confidence. This summer she was probably more of a leader than she’s ever been in the past and really led by example; just worked really hard. She really wants to make an impact, she wants to be on the field and wants to be a part of a successful team.”

Tillman worked hard in the off-season to become as effective a scorer as she is a distributor, and feels having flexibility to play multiple positions can only help.

“I think moving people around and trying different things based on the competition you’re playing is definitely a good thing to have, because it keeps other kids on their toes,” she said. “I know other teams watch films and stuff like that. We all know the other teams we play; and being able to switch up players and put them in different positions definitely makes our team more of a threat and able to do more of the unexpected.”

It’s not surprising that Tillman would give such a well thought-out assessment, since she has a 4.0 in the classroom and is looking at some type of math-related major in college.

“I really like math,” Tillman said. “Most people don’t like math, so I feel like it’s something I can hold on to.”

She will choose a school based on academics, and if soccer happens to fit in, she will attempt to play. “If I can find a school that’s a good fit for me and I can also play soccer, that would be great,” Tillman said. “But I don’t need to play soccer.”

She certainly enjoys it, however, just as the Bulldogs will enjoy having her for one more year.