Jules Stahl smiles before a scrimmage at Notre Dame Aug. 23, 2018. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)

She was little, she was injured and yet she still showed promise during her first two years of high school.

That promise was kept last year, as Jules Stahl blossomed as a junior defender on the Bordentown Regional High School soccer team. And with coach Dominic Castaldo hoping his recent youth movement starts coming to fruition, he looks for the center-back to be front and center in leading the way.

“Going into last year, we knew we had a young team,” said Castaldo, who kept six freshman and started five on a squad that went 7-14. “I made the decision during preseason and said we’re gonna get worse over the next year and a half but it’s gonna pay off in the end. I expect to see the payoff this year and I expect Jules to be a big part of that payoff.”

Stahl returns as one of the top defenders in the Burlington County Patriot Division after being named to several All-Conference/All-Division teams last year. It was her first injury-free season and she made the most of it.

“It was fantastic, it felt so nice,” Stahl said. “You always have that thought in the back of your head like ‘What if something happens?’ But it was nice just to get out there playing and be able to put my all into it. It’s nice being able to run and go into tackles and not have to worry about anything. It makes me more of an open player because I’m not worrying about something that’s been fixed.”

It was a far cry from her first two seasons, when Stahl entered Bordentown all of 5-foot-3, 100 pounds. She had always played center-midfield during her travel ball days with Bordentown, West Windsor-Plainsboro and the Jet Flames, but was more of a defensive midfielder/distributor than a goal scorer.

“I have a really bad kick at the goal, kind of wild,” she said with a laugh. “It was kind of hit it and pray that it went in. But I had my moments where it actually went in or I made a good running play and got it in there.”

When she arrived at BRHS, Castaldo immediately saw her potential as a defender despite her slight size.

“I liked the way she read the game from the back,” the veteran coach said. “She doesn’t have a lot of quickness but she’s smart. I have playmakers that are probably a little bit quicker, a little better, their decision making is a little different than her. But she sees the game really, really well and she’s able to get the technical aspects of where to move people, how to keep the defense more or less running as a unit.”

Stahl immediately saw time as a freshman, but it wasn’t easy.

“I was really tiny and you have these 18-year-olds coming at you, so it was a little nerve wracking,” she said. “My size really took a toll on me, being so young and so little.”

Stahl admitted that being on the sideline was definitely frustrating. There was also the fear of the unknown, as she wondered if her back would ever allow her to play again.

Stahl eventually suffered severe back issues that sidelined her for the remainder of her freshman season. After being in a minor accident in the off-season, she suffered a herniated disc that kept her on the bench for the first half of her sophomore season. She returned to play the final 13 games, being gradually worked into the starting lineup.

“When she first came back it was as an outside back,” Castaldo said. “I wanted to get her acclimated slowly. It wasn’t ‘Here, we’re throwing you in the mix, now go at it.’ We wanted to make sure she felt comfortable and she was confident in what she was able to do.

“You end up defeating the whole purpose if you bring a kid back too fast. If it comes to losing a game or sacrificing a kid; I’ll lose a game. I’m not gonna sacrifice any of our payers. We brought her along a little slower than she might have liked, but eventually she was ready to start.”

Stahl admitted that being on the sideline was definitely frustrating, especially since the Scotties were enjoying a strong year. There was also the fear of the unknown, as she wondered if her back would ever allow her to play again. But she decided to treat it as a lesson in mental toughness.

“It was frustrating but it was also a mental game at the same time, like it was testing me to see if I was really cut out for it,” she said. “I think that made me a stronger player to begin with. It was kind of a positive thing too. Coach Castaldo and my parents gave me a lot of support, so it was easy to take what they were saying and make a lesson out of it.”

Along with improved health, Stahl also had a growth spurt that got her up to 5-7. She also bulked up a bit to give her added strength, and is up to 120 pounds. That’s not what you would call huge, and she is still more of a finesse defender than a physical one.

“I was probably a lot faster my freshman year, my speed always kind of helped me out a little bit,” she said. “Especially if a ball was coming over. I was able to catch up to it a lot more. I never tried to body a girl off a ball. I always just tried to stop them and break them down a little bit and see if they messed up. I knew my strengths.”

If she lost a step over the years, her knowledge of the game helps make up for it. Castaldo compared Stahl to his former Steinert teammate, Joe Fink, the current Trenton High coach and member of the Mercer County Soccer Hall of Fame.

“To me, starting with that center-back and all the way through the middle, you always want that spine to be pretty solid,” Castaldo said. “Because of the way she reads the game, she reminds me a little bit of Joe, who used to have a tendency to see what was coming up and be able to move to that spot without having to sprint to it. She seems to be able to do that.

“She’s not worrying about her health now, she can concentrate on the job she needs to do. She’s a tough player. She played for years against people that were older than her. Even though she’s like a beanpole, she doesn’t shy away; and because of her knowledge of the game and the knowledge of her technical ability, she’s able to compensate for that lack of size.”

She will also have to compensate for lack of experience surrounding her in the back as the Scotties will feature a new goalie and several new defenders this year.

“We have a handful of seniors but Jules is probably the most experienced and the one that’s probably the best leader in that group as of now,” Castaldo said. “We’ll rely heavily on her in that role and that capacity.”

One of Stahl’s biggest attributes is her intelligence on and off the field. In the classroom she is averaging an A-minus and is looking into two very different careers: nursing or “some kind of hospitality business.” She will try and play college soccer if it fits in with the school she picks for academics.

On the field, she is constantly on the lookout for any possible danger.

“You definitely have to have open eyes around the field, make sure you’re always watching your back,” Stahl said. “Being the last key person before the goalie, you definitely have to make sure your (head is) on the swivel the whole time, making sure there’s not girls behind you. Just knowing where the ball is going to go; and having the plays in your head.”

According to Castaldo, she has all those abilities, which has more than made up for lack of size and good health during the first part of her career.