All five Hamilton players on the Notre Dame varsity soccer team are making big-time contributions to the Irish this season, including (left to right) Giuliano Silva, Eric Suschke, Brett Harris, Nick Wilke and Danny Bensch (Photo by Doogie).
By Rich Fisher
Oct. 16: As the Mercer County Boys Soccer Tournament kicks into high gear with eight first-round games Oct. 17, Notre Dame enters the fray with an eight-game winning streak and a No. 1 seed.
Look no further than Hamilton to see where a lot of that success is coming from as all five township players on the roster are in the starting lineup and making impacts all over the field.
They include senior goalie Nick Wilke, senior defender Eric Suschke, senior defensive midfielder Brett Harris, senior center-mid Giuliano Silva, and sophomore forward Danny Bensch. The connection continues up through the coaching staff as first-year coach Dan “Doogie” Donigan is a Steinert graduate and one of his assistants, James “The Mayor” Angiolino has been deemed a Hometown Hero in the township.
Wilke enters Thursday’s MCT opener against 16th-seeded Princeton Day School with four straight shutouts, six in the last seven games and nine overall. He has been bolstered by a strong defense, but has done everything a good keeper needs to do.
“He hasn’t been tested a whole lot but he has come in and made some big saves when we needed him to step up,” Donigan said. “He’s done a good job in the little things, (such as) communication in the back line. He brings some things to the halftime communication when we come off the field as a group. Those things are key pieces.
“Everybody looks to the goalkeeper as an important part and leader to every team, whether you’re a young guy or an older guy. We have great confidence in him across the board. “
Playing in front of Wilke is Suschke, who has been part of a stellar back four.
“He’s a tenacious kid, a relentless worker,” Donigan said. “He’s just gritty as heck and I have him in there for a reason. He brings a lot of positives to the table. He’s a very key guy in our backline.”
And then there is Harris, an underrated holding midfielder who helps make things easier for the defenders behind him and the middies in front of him.
“He’s really been an unsung guy,” Donigan said. “I moved him early in the season to that defensive midfield position and he’s been an absolute rock. He’s been fantastic in there. We found a great home for him. I’ve got other guys that can play in there, but nobody better than Brett. He’s played wide, but right now he’s doing all the dirty work for Giuliano and Eli (Thomas) and that frees those guys up to do what they do well.”
Silva has taken complete advantage of the opportunity. The Brazilian who moved to Hamilton as a freshman has 7 goals and 6 assists, and has been on fire the past three games with three goals and two assists. He is also coming up with the missing piece that Donigan felt was missing earlier this year.
“He kind of understands he needs to be more boisterous out there, he needs to be more of a vocal leader and I’ve seen it now,” the coach said. “Each game I’ve seen a little more and more. He’s getting a little easier for me to read now.”
And then there is Bensch, the dynamic 10th-grader who leads the Colonial Valley Conference in goals 18 and total points (37).
“I can’t explain it; the kid just finds ways to score goals,” Donigan said. “He’s got some great goals. He’s in the right place at the right time and that’s what great goal scorers do. This is really his first time in this environment at this level. Plus he’s got a great supporting cast around him. They can’t key in on any one or two guys. We attack by committee, it’s a nice luxury to have as a coach.”
The Irish staff is bolstered by two veteran soccer guys in PJ Barrett, the former Lawrence High head coach, and Angiolino.
Best known for co-founding the children’s charity organization, Joey’s Angels, Angiolino has coached JV girls’ basketball and softball at Steinert and is Donigan’s right-hand man in running the Hibernian PDA.
“James is an educator,” Donigan said. “He’s got a level of energy second to none and he’s a great man of character. He has tremendous respect for the players and his qualities spread throughout the team. James brings intangibles to us to the team that are so important on a day to day basis.
“It was easy for me to include him on our staff. He has years of experience as a coach and everyone I know loves him. He actually received a “Hometown Hero” award for Hamilton, and he’s not even from Hamilton originally!”
Unlike Donigan, who came up through the ranks of the township recreation leagues and eventually broke Tom Fink’s Steinert record for goals in one season. After an illustrious career at the University of Connecticut he enjoyed success as head coach at the University of St. Louis and Rutgers before parting ways with RU last year.
When Donigan expressed interest in the Notre Dame job, Athletic Director Rich Roche couldn’t dial the phone fast enough.
But despite his success as a first-year high school coach, which includes a 13-2 record and newly-earned CVC Colonial Division championship, Doogie feels he is still learning the ropes.
“It’s still very new, I still haven’t completed my first season,” he said. “I learn something new almost every day, every outing, every game. I’ve got a long way to go to get a full understanding of this position and this job.
“I’m definitely enjoying it. The kids make it enjoyable, to be honest, and that’s all I can really ask for. I try to return the favor, and be that coach they know they can rely on and that they can trust and that’s gonna be fair to them. It’s a new experience, but coaching is coaching. I just keep trying to do what I know and what I’ve been doing a long time.”
Can the Hornets be an MCT wild card?
Hamilton West survived its first MCT test by taking a 3-0 play-in win over Ewing Tuesday, putting forth one of its best efforts of the season.
While a 4-8-4 record would indicate 14th-seeded Hamilton won’t be much of a factor in the counties, the Hornets actual play this year might say otherwise. West went overtime six times, but went 0-4-2 in those contests. They had leads in five of those games, so perhaps a little more tenacity from start to finish could make a difference.
“That’s what we’re looking at,” coach Chris “C-Mo” Morales said. “I know we’re coming up against a great opponent in (3rd-seeded) Pennington, but it’s gonna be a fresh look for us and them. If we play to our potential we could have a chance. The whole season has proven we can play with any team.”
Midfielder Silvio Aparacio feels the same way.
“We’re the underdogs in this upcoming game,” he said after the Ewing win. “But if we just play our game like we did today, or even harder, I feel like anything’s possible.”
And if good things happen for the Hornets, there’s a good chance Aparicio will be in the middle of it all. He had two assists against Ewing.
“Silvio has always been kind of the backbone of our offense,” Morales said. “He plays right in the middle of the field and he was on today. I caught him in the hallway before the game and I said ‘We need two points out of you today,’ and he got two assists, so he made it happen.”
In other first-round games Thursday, 13th-seeded Nottingham travels to 4th-seeded Princeton, while 2nd-seeded Steinert hosts No. 15 West Windsor-Plainsboro North 6 p.m. at Veterans Park. That will be the second game of a doubleheader, as 4th-seeded Steinert hosts 13th-seeded Hun. Tenth-seeded Nottingham travels to 7th-seeded Princeton to round out the township match-ups.