In his traditional preseason manner, Princeton coach Jason Bird said his Tiger soccer team is not yet where he wants it to be. Returning for his eighth year as the Princeton soccer coach, Bird expects a lot from his players. He may not claim his team has reached his expectations until they have gone to the state finals.
Based on the Blue and White scrimmage on Thursday evening, it looks as though the Tigers’ success or failure will be determined by the play in the middle of the field, both on offense and defense.
The offense will key around senior captain Jacob Estrada, not necessarily as the leading scorer but more as the catalyst.
“Estrada is one of those guys who will probably always be involved in our goals,” said Bird, “whether or not he gets the goal or assist. He’ll be the set up guy, similar to a point guard or a quarterback. Our success will be determined how well he does in the middle.”
The center midfielder switched sides at halftime during the scrimmage and showed the spectators that he could bring out the best in whoever was playing along with him.
“Freshmen and sophomore I played forward,” Estrada said. “But as soon as I stepped foot on varsity, coach put me at center mid. The first couple weeks it totally threw me off, but after practice and practice I feel the position more and feel more in control of how the game is played.”
Estrada will be joined in the middle by senior Dylan Schaefer and Tyler Marvin and sophomore Kai Tomaszeski. But he won’t only be dishing the ball out, he’ll be expected to do some of the scoring himself.
“The guys have got a lot of faith in Jacob Estrada to get the balls through and play the smart balls,” Bird said. “But he can also make a move and attack when he needs to.”
One of the challenges during the season will be to work the outside mids into the offensive flow so the ball can be worked outside in when teams double down on Estrada. The progress of the Duffs — senior Nate Duffy and junior Garret Duffin — and their inclusion in the offense may make the difference between a deep playoff run and an early exit. Senior Brady Frank and juniors Zac Burrows and Brenton Schmidt will also be running the outside.
The defense has experience up the middle to help support a new goalie and new starters on the outside.
Senior captain Zack Andersen and junior third year varsity defenseman Drew Pranka will hold down the sweeper and stopper spots, flanked by senior Ryan Owens and junior Jacob Gleason.
“We’re going to lean on Pranka pretty hard,” Bird said when discussing his defense. “He’s our stopper back there on defense. He worked hard over the offseason to improve his strength and speed.”
The goal will be tended by senior Lucas Bauer. Stuck behind two senior goalies, Bauer did not see a lot of action last year.
“We have complete trust and faith in Lucas to do a great job,” Bird said. “But we need to get him in a game time situation to see where he stands — we’ll see Monday.”
Unlike many of the other sports, soccer will not be part of the new conference as they are only one of three soccer programs in the Three Rivers. However, they will likely face both squads with Riverdale being on the regular schedule and a likely match up against Orion-Sherrard at the Orion tourney in early October.
In addition, the Tigers will face former NCIC foes Mendota, Sterling and Ottawa. They will face some of the state’s best programs in the Oregon Tourney the first weekend of September. The Tiger squad will battle a number of teams for the Little 10 conference — one of the stronger soccer conferences in the state.
Absent from this year’s schedule are two teams that have become traditional rivals — Streator and Peoria Christian.
Andersen expects good things on the pitch this year.
“I think we’ll be pretty solid. When we were sophomores and this junior class was freshmen we were like 13-3. So I think we’ll do pretty well.”