The defense has been a work in progress for the Princeton High girls soccer team all season long. And it appears that work has paid off for the Little Tigers at just the right time.
Princeton opened the Central Jersey Group IV tournament with a 6-1 win over North Brunswick on Tuesday. The eighth-seeded Little Tigers controlled play throughout the game and used goals from five different players to ease past the ninth-seeded Raiders.
“Our team was very hyped,” junior defender Lauren Rougas said after the win. “I think as a team our main focus was to connect passes and work together and I think we accomplished that. When we stepped on the field there was a lot of positive energy.”
Princeton broke a scoreless tie 18 minutes into the first half when freshman Sophia Lis scored an unassisted goal. Sophomore Greta Bush added a goal just over five minutes later and the Little Tigers never looked back. The Princeton defense held North Brunswick without a goal until the Raiders scored on a penalty kick with just over four minutes left in the game.
“As soon as we scored one we were more determined and we switched the field and it was amazing to work as a team,” Rougas said. “It was a team effort. Greta Bush and Grace Heilbronn and Kat DeMilt all helped out to shut down all of their strikers.
“Our chemistry is just there, especially with the defense. We have definitely gotten better and we have progressed and learned from our mistakes. And it is not just our defensive line, it starts with our forwards and works its way back.”
Lis added her second goal of the game just before halftime and then Princeton received goals from Morgan Beamer, Camille Franklin and Molly Frain in the second half.
“My defense has really stepped up and communicated well and sorted out some things that we needed to work on,” said Princeton coach Val Rodriguez, whose team advanced to take on top-seeded Hunterdon Central on Friday at 3 p.m. in Flemington. “Our one-on-one defense and our team defense have come a long, long way this season. We have a couple of girls who are new in positions and a couple of girls who are back from last year. Lauren Rougus is a tremendous leader back there and we have a lot of talent to work with.”
Since allowing five goals to Nottingham in a loss on Oct. 15, Princeton has allowed just two goals in its last four games. The defense has combined with a balanced offense to put Princeton into a position of playing its best soccer when it matters most.
“We have a lot of people contributing this year,” said Rodriguez, whose team improved to 9-6-2 with the win over North Brunswick. “It’s been really fun to be a part of the team approach and making sure that everybody has that confidence when they have the ball at their feet and when they don’t have the ball at their feet. That’s been something that we have been talking about all season long.”
Now the Little Tigers get a shot against the top seed, which advanced to the quarterfinals with a 3-0 win over 16th-seeded West Windsor-Plainsboro South.
“We’re super excited,” Rougas said. “We’re going to try to play our best and keep doing what we work on in practice and talk about before the games. It’s all about the positive energy and the flow of the game and connecting passes and switching the field.”
The team approach has been working for Princeton. It’s something Rodriguez has been preaching since the beginning of the season and will continue to preach as the Little Tigers head into their matchup with Hunterdon Central.
“That’s been the message recently, making sure that we always have numbers either in the attack or numbers back on defense and everyone needs to be involved on both sides of the ball,” she said.
And Rodriguez doesn’t think her team will be intimidated by playing the No. 1 seed
“My girls get up for big games,” she said. “Am I worried about it? No. Do I think that we can bring our best? Yes. And that’s all that it takes any day.”