"Throughout the Coaches Tournament, we played some amazing teams," Haddonfield senior Maddie Kiep said. "And in each of those games, Coach Gess would tell us, 'Girls, just keep them in front of you. Don't step, don't stab.' He was just very calm about it. I mean, during the Paul VI game, we had 10 behind the ball in the second half.
"And as stressful as that was, that's just how our team worked. We were very good at it. And Coach Gess recognized that and helped give us the confidence to be successful in doing that."
It's rare to see a small school advance to the Coaches Tournament finals - even rarer to see that team do it without holding possession in the second half of a semifinal. But that was just one of the unlikely accomplishments to which Gess, this season's Inquirer Coach of the Year in South Jersey girls' soccer, helped lead his team.
The Bulldogs, with an unrelenting defensive mind-set, finished 25-2 on its way to a South Jersey Group 2 title. Gess, in his seventh year at Haddonfield, also earned his 250th win as a high school girls' soccer coach this season. The Bulldogs did not lose at home again this year - they are 80-0-1 at home in Gess' tenure. Finally, the team opened the season with a school-record 22 wins.
"This has been another amazing year for our program," Gess said. "We knew we had a strong team coming back, but I don't think anyone envisioned this. We have always had close-knit teams, but this team just had something special about them that is hard to define. Their work ethic, commitment, and sacrifice for each other is what made them special.
"This program is built on teamwork. We are successful because we have parents, players, and coaches working together for one common goal, and that is to be the best team we can be."
As a sign of just how good the team's defense was this season, Haddonfield did not allow a goal through its first nine games and allowed just three in 21 games before the postseason. Only Lenape scored more than one goal in regulation against Haddonfield.
"It was an unbelievable season," Kiep said. "I had pretty high expectations for this team. But this year, Coach Gess really did a nice job of instilling confidence in us and letting us know that we're an experienced team and that we can go out and win South Jersey. He built us up each game and made us believe that we could be a great team. He's just an amazing coach."
Haddonfield, a senior-laden team, pointed to Gess' work ethic and how he pushed the players every game.
"Our seniors have always led the charge, and this year's group was unbelievable," Gess said. "I looked forward to practice every day. We worked hard and had fun.
"This group of players and coaches is very special to me, and I have appreciated every moment with them. I am very fortunate. It's been another great ride."
Contact Chris Melchiorre at firstname.lastname@example.org.