The two most successful teams in the history of the Mercer County Tournament will renew acquaintances Thursday night, as second-seeded Princeton takes on top-seeded, and defending champion Pennington.
With six titles, Princeton has won the most titles in tournament history, but the Red Raiders can cut into the lead with a victory, which would be their third all-time. It is the fourth time the two sides will meet since 2011 in the tournament.
Both teams sport big name players; Pennington is lead by Ibrahima Diop (27 goals), while the Tigers have Sam Serxner (tied for state lead with 23 assists). But it has been the supporting cast in the county tournament, over the last two years, that has led the Red Raiders to the brink of a repeat championship.
Jared Panson, the junior co-captain for Pennington, might not have the big numbers of some of his teammates, but the defensive midfielder has been the key cog to the Red Raiders' two-year period of dominance. Panson (three goals, four assists) got the game winner in the 2015 2-1 semifinal win over the Tigers, and his play as the on-field leader of Pennington allows the players further forward to flourish in head coach Chad Bridges' system.
PRINCETON BEATS HOPEWELL VALLEY IN SEMIS
PENNINGTON BEATS STEINERT IN SEMIS
"If you know my teams, you know we always have a guy that just doesn't get a lot of stats, or recognition, but they are so important to the success," Bridges said. "Jared is one of those guys , and one of the reasons why he was named captain as a junior. He does the things that you need those guys to do. You have to have those players if you are going to be successful. Sure, you have to have those guys that can put the ball in the back of the net. But you have to have that engine, and Jared is the engine for us."
Noam Davidov, who scored the winner in the semifinal victory over Hopewell Valley, is excited to bring his Tigers back to the final for the second time in three years. Princeton beat defending co-state champion Allentown in the 2014 final on penalty kicks, and the Tigers are looking for a sixth title in a decade.
''It is always great to keep the legacy going," Davidov said. "We always enjoy playing the MCT's, so just getting to the final won't satisfy us. We are going to come out and try to win this one again."
"It is how you measure your season," head coach Wayne Sutcliffe said. "Every year, we want to try and win at least one major championship: MCT or sectional. I think there is enough respect between the two teams, and enough accomplishment, where if we play each other in the MCT, I think we both welcome it. We both try to play the game the right way, with quality and a possession style. I personally can't wait, and I think it is going to be great."
MERCER COUNTY TOURNAMENT FINAL
2-Princeton (17-1) vs. 1-Pennington (13-0-2), Thursday 7:30 p.m. at TCNJ
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Princeton - Defeated 15-Nottingham 8-0, 7-WW-P North 6-1, 3-Hopewell Valley 1-0.
Pennington - Defeated 16-Lawrence 5-0, 8-WW-P South 2-1, 12-Steinert 3-0.
Princeton 4-4-2, Pennington 4-5-1/4-2-3-1.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Eric Broadway, Jr., D/MF - Broadway scores big goals for the Red Raiders. He got one in the MCT final last year, and his opener Monday booked Pennington's ticket to the 2016 final. Broadway has four goals this season, and his pace on the left helps on both sides of play.
2. Ibrahima Diop, Jr., F - The Senegalese superstar keeps putting his stamp on each game. Diop ran the Spartans ragged in the second half Monday, on the way to his ninth brace of the campaign. Princeton will have to account for the striker at every moment, because with his pace and movement, Diop just needs one chance to put the ball in the net.
3. Pedro Dolabella, Sr., MF - Another game, another two assists for the Brazilian. He now has 12 goals and 11 assists. Princeton will have to shut down the supply lines to the long midfielder if the Tigers want to win.
1. Noam Davidov, Sr., F - He is quietly putting together an impressive campaign for the Tigers. Davidov also has a penchant for scoring big goals. He got the only tallies in the Tigers win over Trenton to clinch the Colonial Division title, and his gaol Monday sent the Tigers into their third final in six years.
2. Andrew Goldsmith, Sr., MF - He is to the Tigers what Dolabella is to Pennington. Goldsmith has 17 goals and eight assists, and his flicked on header to Davidov gave the Tigers the win Monday. The big midfielder is always in the action, and will have to have a big night Thursday.
3. Quentin Pompliano, Jr., D - Plays centerback, and is the key to the strong Princeton defense. But with the Tigers set piece attack, Pompliano has scored some goals in the box, including the game-winner opening day against Hopewell Valley.
WHERE THE MATCH WILL BE WON
There are plenty of storylines for this match. Each side wants to knock the ball around the pitch. With the wide open field at TCNJ, as opposed to the ultra-narrow one that hosted the semifinals, both sides should be able to play their brand of soccer.
"We can't wait for that," Sutcliffe said. "It will be such a better compliment to the final for both teams, to be able to open up a little bit and knock it on a quality surface, and not have every chance inside of 35 yards when it goes out of bounds become a possibility to score. It is huge to showcase the final once again. It does the game justice."
It should come down to which midfield can assert its control onto the match. The Tigers unit is led by Goldsmith, but also have talented players such as Andrew Beamer, Josh Nieman, and T.J. Korsah to get the ball to forwards Davidov (12 goals) and Alex Ratzan (eight goals). Goldsmith has been the top midfielder in the CVC all year, and his experience in big games will come in handy in the final.
For the Red Raiders, Panson is the deep-lying defensive midfield general. He, along with a quick back line, smothered Tristan Spadola in the semifinal, never allowing him to get into open spaces. Kyle Galloway will sometimes play in defense, but in big matches he usually slides in next to Panson to shift the formation to more of a 4-2-3-1, with two holding mids. Dolabella is the play-maker for Pennington, while Dawson DeCoff plays behind Diop to bolster the attack.
These teams have met once prior in the final, with the Tigers taking a 1-0 win in the infamous 2011 snow-out final. Pennington has won the last two, in 2012 (QF, 4-0) and in last year's semifinal (2-1). Princeton is the only team capable of knocking off the Red Raiders juggernaut. However, Diop will be too much for the Tigers, in a 3-1 Pennington win to complete the repeat.
AREA TOP FIVE
1. Pennington (13-0-2)
2. Peddie (12-1-1)
3. Princeton (17-1)
4. Hopewell Valley (15-4)
5. Trenton (11-4)
CVC TOP FIVE
1. Princeton (17-1)
2. Hopewell Valley (15-4)
3. Trenton (11-4)
4. West Windsor-Plainsboro North (11-5-1)
5. Robbinsville (11-5-2)