Caitlyn Curran admits to taking surfing lessons as a youngster, but also confesses “I’m not much of a surfer.”
Her Robbinsville girls’ soccer team proved quite the opposite, however, in hanging 10 all the way to an NJSIAA Central West A Regional championship.
“We called this season ‘Riding the wave’ and we just kept riding the wave as long as we could,” the Ravens coach said. “It was a good analogy for this year. We felt we could have potentially kept getting hit by waves, whether it be a teammate getting sick or the season being cancelled or games being cancelled. We had to make sure we stayed on top of it and kept riding it as long as we could.”
They slipped off the board early in the season, stumbling to a 1-2-1 start with two straight losses to Princeton and Hopewell Valley.
But Robbinsville caught a big one with a victory over Allentown and proceeded to win eight of its final nine games to claim its first title at the state level since claiming a 2016 sectional title (this year’s tournament was divided into regions rather than sections due to COVID-ravaged schedules throughout the state).
“It was awesome,” said senior Brynn Hopkins, widely regarded as the Colonial Valley Conference’s top goalie. “It’s kind of hard to put into words because we didn’t know what to expect coming into the season because of COVID. We went in there hoping for the best, and we made the best out of kind of an awkward situation so we’re really happy about that.”
Like every other team in the state—or in this case, the world—the Ravens faced unique challenges from the pandemic that made it difficult to maintain an even keel. But they plowed through by leaning on each other.
“There are challenges to everything, any position, any sport,” said Hopkins, when asked if it was difficult to remain focused as a keeper. “But just having the support of your coaches and teammates and knowing that when you’re on the field you’re not just playing for yourself, you’re playing for something bigger than yourself, just makes it more fun.
“Sometimes it was hard because you didn’t know what was gonna happen, everything was so uncertain. But when game time came we were ready, we were excited and it was fun.”
They were certainly ready for the regional championship game at home against Delaware Valley. After battling to a 2-1 lead at halftime, the Ravens exploded for four unanswered goals after the break for a 6-1 victory.
Sophie Berman scored Robbinsville’s first four goals and finished with a career-high five to end the season with a team-leading 15 goals. The junior, who was the lone forward in Robbinsville’s 4-5-1 formation, tallied eight goals in three state tournament games.
Hopkins enjoyed watching the show from the opposite end of the field.
“It was insane,” she said of the title game. “I was jumping up and down, I was in shock. She’s really good. She really stepped up this year and broke out of her shell. She’s awesome.”
Berman began her high school career as an outside midfielder, and then moved to center mid before the coaching staff decided to make a change that would pay huge dividends.
“We just kind of saw an opportunity where she likes to shoot the ball; is very technically skilled with her right and left foot; and she’s good at working up top on her own,” Curran said. “So instead of putting her in that offensive center mid role, we decided to switch her with (senior) Kenzie Martin.
“Kenzie can be a destroyer in the middle, she breaks things up, she’s aggressive, and she makes really good plays. It ended up working out really nicely in that flip where Kenzie created chaos in the middle and Sophie was able to create some chaos at the goal.”
Martin was one of three center midfielders along with sophomore Kara Keating and junior Aleca Fotiou, who was second on the team with 10 goals and had one against Delaware Valley.
“We haven’t had a three combination work that well in a while,” Curran said. “They really had the best chemistry, where they all picked up where each other left off on any given play. It’s hard to attribute it to one particular girl when the three of them worked as such a good entity together. They worked to each other’s strengths and really were like one engine in the middle.”
Senior Becca Siracusa and junior Rachel Yap flanked the trio as outside midfielders, while the back line featured senior Mary Fotiou and juniors Allie Neumann, Emma Horan and Victoria Maldonado. Along with Hopkins, they comprised a cohesive unit.
“This was my second year with those four defenders and having that experience was great,” the goalie said. “Our big thing at practice was having one mind and working as a unit. With me knowing how they play and them knowing how I play and how each other play it was easy. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we worked off of that.”
Curran felt her defenders were a huge key to the season, as Robbinsville had six shutouts and allowed just four goals in its final nine games.
“Our back line is unmatched,” the coach said. “I love those girls. They think with one brain, they worked as one unit and Brynn was incredible behind them this year. She had a phenomenal year. She’s only been a full-time goalie the past two years. She’s just a great kid, a great athlete and she really blended with those back four.”
Hopkins was mentored by MJ Matthews, a former standout goalie for the Ravens. Adrienne Capritti was the JV coach and Curran could not say enough about her assistants.
“I had such a great coaching staff,” she said. “I’m lucky to have the women I have with me helping out.”
Two reserves who were key pieces of the championship puzzle were freshman Lizzy Andrus and Sophia Aquilino, both outside midfielders.
“Lizzy was so confident and composed with the ball, she was a great sub to throw in and maintain a high level of play,” Curran said. “Aquilino subbed in the back when we had a few lingering injuries and also played outside midfield. She’s a hard-working, bulldozer kind of kid. She’s not afraid of anything.”
The entire team took on that attitude as the season progressed, going from somewhat reserved to full of courage.
“Some of the big games early in the year, we didn’t have the confidence we should have had,” Hopkins said. “But then we ended up doing well against the tougher teams in the CVC. So I just think our confidence throughout the season kept increasing. It made us a better team and it made us closer as friends.”
Robbinsville’s torrid finish brought up the obvious question of how far could they have gone were the tournament played out to a state championship game. But the Ravens were happy to take what they could.
“It was a little disappointing but we didn’t think we were gonna make it that far; the season could have ended any day,” Hopkins said. “We were just happy to have won what we won and got as far as we got.”
Curran echoed those sentiments.
“I’m definitely a glass half-full person, so I’m happy to have gotten to where we’ve gotten,” she said. “I would have loved to see this group advance, because I think we could have done something more special than we did. But I’m completely happy walking away with a regional title because there were so many programs that had to bow out early. We got lucky in the fact we were able to play it out.
“I have to give it up to the girls. They did so much work on their own through the summer. They were dedicated and committed to having to train by themselves. Throughout the season they did what they had to do to stay healthy to keep us on the field. That’s kind of how we ended up where we ended up.”
It was all part of catching that wave and riding it masterfully.