Bordentown Regional Middle School soccer player Cadence Klemic goes for the ball during a home win against Mooresetown Oct. 10, 2018. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)

When Nicole Papp took over the Bordentown Middle School girls’ soccer program last year, she did so with the mindset that she was coaching people, not just players.

“I try to ask them about their outside (travel) soccer; what positions they played, things like that,” she said. “I’m trying to connect with them in other ways, too, asking what they did the past weekend, how are their classes going. I’m trying to show them I’m more involved than just being a soccer coach. I want to try to be a mentor for them on and off the field. I do teach some of them in class too.”

Papp’s approach is working well. She inherited a team that won just four games in 2016 and guided it to a 12-0 record. As of Oct. 15 this season, Bordentown was 8-1 and had run its winning streak to 15 before losing to Northern Burlington in September. NBC is a quality side, as witnessed by the fact it has an A and B team (Bordentown lost to the A).

Eighth-grade captain Victoria Wheeler will take the tough competition over a less challenging team any day.

“I feel we need to play many competitive teams this year,” Wheeler said. “Playing easy teams is not a challenge for us. It definitely bummed me out as an eighth grader not to leave undefeated. We didn’t want people to think we only won against easy teams. So I think this loss reignited the fire underneath us to make us work even harder. We will be playing Northern Burlington again and we will be even more determined to win. I feel a team gets better with fierce competition.”

Papp felt the loss was probably, in one way at least, a good thing.

“It took the pressure of the long winning streak off,” she said. “That’s what the girls kind of took from it too. I asked them how they felt, what they wanted to work on after the loss, and the sentiment was kind of ‘The pressure was now off, let’s just go worry about every other team and have a nice season.’”

That is exactly what has happened. Through nine games it outscored opponents by a combined 50-6 after outscoring them 50-8 last year. Bordentown graduated seven eighth-graders from the 2017 squad, six whom were starters.

Despite the personnel losses, Wheeler was confident the good times would continue to roll.

“I definitely felt sad that the eighth graders from last year left but I know we had a lot of talent in this school that was ready to shine,” she said. “I knew with a great coach and talented girls we were ready to go out there and be the best. My expectations were to not be lazy and to be determined to win and I feel that we have met them.”

Bordentown Regional Middle School soccer player Jessica Bassion fights a Moorestown opponent for the ball during a home win Oct. 10, 2018. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)

Wheeler has played a big part in that, taking her role of captain seriously. Papp noted that she plays as hard at practice as she does in games, “and that’s not something you normally see very often in younger players. You see effort during games, but she is a leader by playing hard in practice as well.”

That carries over into the classroom, where Wheeler also excels. The coach added that her work ethic is above reproach and she takes constructive criticism well. The midfielder, who plays club soccer with the nationally ranked PDA South team, is also attentive to making everyone feel part of the team. She will sit and talk to the team’s lone sixth-grader on the bus and ask her how things are going in class, who her teachers are, and things of that nature.

“I feel that every player on any team should have those responsibilities,” Wheeler said. “It makes for a better team. This year and last year I felt since day one I wanted everyone to feel comfortable with each other. This is where I needed to be a leader. It’s hard being a newcomer. I want everyone to make sure they’re welcome and a part of this team.

“I remember my sixth grade year, my big sister Emily, who was on the team, encouraged me during tryouts and practice. She made me smile and I felt part of the team. I remember how great it felt, and now this is what I need to do to make sure no one feels uncomfortable or feels left out.”

Looking at the team statistics, it would hard to believe anyone feels left out. Through the first nine games goals came from 13 of the 18 girls on the roster, while 16 players had at least one assist.

Leading the way were 8th-graders Cadence Klemic with 10 goals, Valentina Candelori with eight goals and seven assists, Jess Bassion (six goals), Wheeler (five goals) and Brooke Guire (three). Eighth-grader Melissa Matamoros and seventh-graders Julie Wojcik and Natalie Tuccillo each had four assists.

‘I know one of the most important things is they represent Bordentown in the best way possible.’

A key defensive contributor is seventh-grade captain Emily Javick, who Papp said “is pretty tenacious. She’s the leader back there and we have five rotating defenders that stay back there for the entire game.”

They are playing in front of seventh-grade goalie Brynn Fitzpatrick, who had an 0.55 goals-against average through nine games.

Rounding out the team are eighth-graders Sofia Klama, Taylor Bassion (Jess’ twin sister) Abby Goodrich, Isabella Candelori (Valentina’s twin sister), Kaitlyn Misner and Natalia Villanueva; seventh-grader Hannah Neville and sixth-grader Ella Garofalo.

“This is such a hard-working team,” Wheeler said. “We are not just happy about our personal goals, but we encourage each other to work towards their goals too. I feel that our team is great passing and moving off the ball. Ms. Papp drills this stuff into our heads before every game and every halftime. Each and every one of us, including the coach, gets fired up to be the best of the best , and that is what this team is all about this year — determination and encouragement.”

Papp, who has a surname quite familiar in Bordentown, is actually a Burlington Township High graduate. She started all four years for the Falcons varsity and served as captain her final two years. She also played at Ursinus College before going to law school and then circling back to become a teacher.

She takes those teaching skills onto the field.

“I really wanted to be able to teach them some of the basics that can help us win some games,” she said. “And I wanted to have them work hard.”

It appears Papp has gotten everything she strived for.

“The girls are disciplined and they are super hard working,” she said. “They listen to instructions well and they take my advice and my soccer background and they really want to get better. They listen and apply everything that we do in practice. They work hard and apply it to the games. Even if it’s just the little things each and every game.”

Once again, however, the coach is just as concerned with how her girls are away from the field.

“I’ll just say I’m super proud of this group, and just what a great group of girls they are,” she said. “I know one of the most important things is they represent Bordentown in the best way possible. They want to earn their respect from classmates and the town and just kind of show that Bordentown can be a great soccer area.”

They are more than kind of showing that. They are making a definitive statement.