Aidan Passannante and Zach Halliday are the elder statesmen of the Princeton High School boys’ soccer team.
The two made the varsity squad as freshmen in 2009. That same year, the Little Tigers went on to capture the Group III state title.
“They made an immediate impression as freshmen,” head coach Wayne Sutcliffe said. “They were out first guys off the bench in that game.”
This year, as seniors, Passannante and Halliday again had the chance to come out on top. The Little Tigers won the Central Jersey Group III championship, 4-3, against Allentown, and eventually advanced to the state final against Ramapo Dec. 1. After 80 minutes of regulation and two ten-minute overtime periods, the title game ended in a 1-1 tie. Princeton and Ramapo were crowned Group III co-champions.
Before the game, Passannante and Halliday decided to use their experience as motivation not only for themselves, but for the team as a whole as well.
“We brought in our rings and showed them to the rest of the team,” Halliday said. “We wanted to let them have a chance to look at them and really see how cool it would be to have one that they could call their own.”
He said this affected the seniors as well as the underclassmen.
“It was their last chance to get one,” he said. “Two kids, Pablo Arroyo and Scott Bechler, got moved up to varsity for the tournament in 2009, but they weren’t on the official roster, so they didn’t get rings. It sort of lit a fire under them and everybody else. They all wanted it.”
The team’s desire was certainly on display during the title game.
The team was aggressive from the start against a Ramapo team that surrendered only seven goals all season. Within the first seven minutes, Passannante and Kevin Halliday each nearly scored, both assisted by Colin Lamb.
The Little Tigers had several near-misses throughout the entire game. The Ramapo goalkeeper seemed to know exactly where each shot was headed.
“All credit to him,” Sutcliffe said. “I thought he was the difference for them. The keeper makes a difference in preserving the game, and I thought that’s what he did. He preserved their share of the trophy for them.”
Princeton dominated its opposition in terms of possession and pressure, but the Raiders were the first to score off of a long throw with 23 minutes remaining in the first half.
The Little Tigers kept pursuing the back of the net, though.
“We were definitely confident we were going to get one,” Passannante said. “At halftime, nobody was upset. We knew we were going to get one.”
Efforts from Jeremy Goldsmith, Scott Bechler, Passannante and both Hallidays came close to going in, but the Ramapo keeper seemed impenetrable.
That is, until, Chase Ealy fed a well-placed cross in front of the Ramapo net with less than 20 minutes remaining in the match. Bechler put a head on the ball, tying the game.
“It’s the best feeling ever,” Bechler said. “I’m just happy that I could help my team. I was trying as hard as I could through the state tournament because any of those games could have been my last. We knew a goal was coming, but we also knew that there was a chance it didn’t come, so we just kept pushing. After that, it was 0-0. It was a new game. We were very happy that we had a chance to get back in it.”
Bechler’s efforts did not go unnoticed.
“I’m really happy for Scott,” Passannante said. “He played one of the best games I’ve ever seen him play, and to do that in a state final is great.”
As the clock wound down, both teams threatened to score, but neither succeeded.
Both overtime periods passed in a similar fashion. The urgency to score a goal and end the game was tangible, and both teams became aggressive toward each other, but the Princeton boys kept level heads.
“Before every single game, we say, ‘Don’t yell at the refs, don’t yell at your teammmates, and keep everything positive,’” Bechler said. “Sometimes we sip up a little bit, but as soon as that happens, everybody’s on him making sure that everyone knows that that’s not the point. The point is just to play soccer.”
“We strive to keep our nerve,” he said. “‘Be at your best when the pressure is greatest.’ I’m just so proud of the way they responded because it’s all about adversity and overcoming that adversity. They’re very mature in that regard.”
The game ended in silence. Fans and even some players on either side of the field were unsure of how to react.
“It was weird at first,” Halliday said. “It was different from 2009. It was still nice to end as co-champs, though. It’s always better than coming away with a loss.”
There was never a doubt in Sutcliffe’s mind that his squad would end up where it did.
“We just thought with the quality and the accomplishments that we’ve had, we’re the best team in New Jersey,” he said. “That’s the way we thought.”
Sutcliffe said everything has come full-circle for Passannante and Halliday, and deservedly so.
“I can’t tell you how much they gave to the jersey over their four years,” he said. “They wanted to finish where they started.”
Overall, Sutcliffe said, he is pleased with the way the season ended, even if they do have to share the title.
“They’re an amazing group,” he said. “They had a lot of pressure on them as a result of past success. I couldn’t be happier for them.”