The top three boys soccer seeds will all be in attendance on Monday at the semifinals of the Mercer County Tournament, but one team will be crashing the party when it takes the field at 7:30 p.m. at Notre Dame.
Most people expected top-seeded Pennington, second-seeded Princeton and third-seeded Hopewell Valley to matriculate through the opening rounds, but 12th-seed Steinert is a surprise visitor to the festivities and now finds itself in a showdown with powerhouse Pennington.
On the other side of the bracket, Princeton and Hopewell Valley will replay the Colonial Valley Conference game of the year, which ended with the Tigers beating the Bulldogs, 2-1, back on Sept. 8 in the season opener.
MERCER COUNTY TOURNAMENT SEMIFINALS
3-Hopewell Valley (15-3) vs. 2-Princeton (16-1), 5 p.m. @ Notre Dame
The two sides played an epic match in September, and if this game is anything like the first contest, the fans will be in for a treat.
Hopewell Valley comes in after scraping by 11th-seed Notre Dame, 2-1, in the quarterfinals, aftera 6-0 win over 14th-seeded Hamilton West in the opening round. The Bulldogs have a talented roster, but have struggled at times this year putting together a full 80 minutes. This team is also slated to be the top seed in North Jersey 2, Group 3, so a win in the semifinal could set up a month of silverware.
Princeton, No. 10 in the NJ.com Top 20, has one blip on the campaign, which came during a 3-1 loss to Robbinsville in September. Other than that, the Tigers have been perfect and they come in to the semifinals after beating 15th-seeded Nottingham and seventh-seeded West Windsor-Palinsboro North along the way. Princeton is looking to make its sixth appearance in the final since 2007, and face Pennington in the tournament for the fourth time in six years.
WHERE THE MATCH WILL BE WON
Both sides are evenly matched, so extra time is possibly in the cards. The midfields should cancel out, and the strike forces have similar numbers.
It may come down to how well Hopewell Valley can defend set pieces. The Bulldogs came undone in the first loss through a late Quentin Pompliano header off a Sam Serxner corner, and it could come down to a similar situation Monday.
PLAYERS TO WATCH FROM EACH SIDE
Abdullah Afridi, Sr., MF- He had plenty of chances in the Bulldogs 2-1 overtime win Saturday, but could not finish. He did have an assist, but Hopewell Valley will need the talented player to put away the few chances he may get against the Tigers.
Dylan Markulec, Sr., MF- The Bulldogs are going to have to quiet the Princeton midfield, and Markulec will be the main man in that department. He can get forward and add to the attack as well, with four goals and a team-leading seven assists.
Duncan O'Connor, Sr., MF/F- He leads the team with 12 goals, two ahead of Connor Fedor. O'Connor has a penchant for scoring big goals in important games, and this is one of those contests.
Andrew Goldsmith, Sr., MF- The big midfielder leads the Tigers with 14 goals, and also has seven assists. He is the engine to the Princeton attack, and has allowed his team to dominate possession in most of its matches.
Alex Ratzan, Sr., F- Finally healthy after a missing five games early in the season, Ratzan adds another dimension to the Tigers attack. His return has coincided with the Princeton offense averaging over four goals a game.
Sam Serxner, Sr., D- Top in the state with 23 assists, Serxner leads from the back. A top notch defender, he will get the chance to shut down the Hopewell attack. But he will get forward, and as the Bulldogs know, Serxner can hurt teams in the final third.
It seems like the teams are fairly even, but the Tigers have started to become ruthless at the right time of the campaign. In a battle of NJSIAA Sectional top seeds, Serxner and Ratzan are the difference, in a 3-1 Princeton win.
12 Steinert (6-8-2) vs. 1 Pennington (12-0-2), 7:30 p.m. @ Notre Dame
Steinert has rattled off 1-0 upsets of fifth-seed Robbinsville and fourth-seeded Trenton during the tournament and the Spartans arrive on the big stage of the semifinals for the third time in three years. This team lost in penalty kicks to eventual champion Princeton in 2014, but this year's version of Steinert is an entirely different squad.
Nationally-ranked Pennington stands in the Spartans' way and the Red Raiders have been rolling with wins over 16th-seeded Lawrence and eighth-seeded West Windsor-Plainsboro South. Pennington finds itself in prime position to win its second-straight MCT title, and third since 2012.
WHERE THE MATCH WILL BE WON
On paper, the midfield matchup between the two sides is titled heavily in favor of the Red Raiders. Pennington starts three potential all-area players, while the Steinert counters with a very young group making its first appearance in a game this big.
Look for Pennington to have 70 percent of the possession, and with a forward as lethal as Ibrahima Diop holding the up the ball for the talented players behind him, the majority of play should be in the Red Raiders offensive final third.
PLAYERS TO WATCH FROM EACH SIDE
Frank DiNatale, So., MF- One of a group of young midfielders that get a chance to play against the coach who runs their travel program (NLSA), DiNatale will have his hands full with the strong Pennington midfield.
Maximus DiPierro, So., MF- Like DiNatale, DiPierro plays for the same travel team, and will relish the opportunity to match wits with the Red Raiders.
Tristan Spadola, Jr., F- The striker is small, but he is very quick. Spadola leads the Spartans with nine goals and four assists. If Pennington can shut him down, Steinert will have no shot of pulling the upset.
Ibrahima Diop, Jr., F- Diop is the best player in the area by some distance, and may be the best player in the state. With 25 goals and five assists, he will see these next two games as a massive stage to showcase his ability.
Pedro Dolabella, Sr., MF- While he sometimes looks languid, the big deep-lying play-maker sprays balls all over the pitch for the Red Raiders. He has 12 goals and nine assists, and teams up with Jared Panson to run the midfield.
Kyle Galloway, Sr., D/MF- Galloway can play all over the field, and his versatility has been key to keeping Pennington unbeaten in 2016. He scored the game-winner Saturday, and will be a massive figure in the final.
Steinert has made a nice run to get to the semifinal match, but this Pennington team is on another level. After a scare in the quarterfinals, the Red Raiders win 5-0, to set up a dream final with their biggest local rival Princeton Thursday night.