CRANBURY: Pawlak enjoyed eye-popping offensive season

By Rich Fisher, The Packet Group
   While Cranbury’s Shannon Pawlak made it hard on opposing defenses this year, she made it easy for the Colonial Valley Conference coaches when it came to post-season awards.
   If anyone else earned the CVC Coaches’ Offensive Player of the Year Award other than the Princeton High junior and East Windsor PAL graduate, there would have been an investigation.
   Pawlak had an eye-popping 28 goals and eight assists, and went just two games without either a goal or assist.
   She helped the Little Tigers to the Mercer County Tournament semifinals and Central Jersey Group III quarterfinals, along with twin sister Emily who played defense.
   ”Overall, I am very happy with how this season went,” Shannon said. “Last year, we were extremely successful, so that was a blessing and a curse. We knew we had the potential to make it as far as before, but we also had a lot of history to live up to.”
   Thus, there was a little concern at the start of the season due to a lot of holes to fill.
   ”But we were also aware of how much talent was still around,” Pawlak said. “The beginning of our season was like any other, being that we were not necessarily playing our best because with any team it takes a few games to get a flow and understand how to play with each other. Luckily, we came out with victories and after about the fourth game we really found our groove.
   ”I was happy with our performance overall. We finished the league with a great record (14-4) and our seeding in states and the MCT reflected our hard work. Though we didn’t come out with the victories in both the tournaments, I couldn’t have asked for a more tenacious and hardworking team. I’m especially proud to be a Tiger this year.”
   Her road to Princeton has been a long and successful one. She and Emily both started in the East Windsor PAL League at age 4, before moving on to play travel soccer for Princeton, the Cranbury Eagles, LSTS, Match Fit and YMS, where they are currently.
   ”It seems like a lot of teams,” Shannon said. “But for the most part, it was the same team but a change in name.”
   Shannon also played for the Cranbury School in sixth and seventh grade before focusing on club soccer.
   ”I mainly played forward or midfield and scored a decent amount of goals during my time there, but actually I have not always been a forward,” she said. “We joke in our house that when Emily and I were young, Emily was actually a great forward and I was the staunch defender.
   ”However, one day I was put up top, scored a few goals and have been a forward ever since. I liked scoring I guess. So, for the most part, I have been a forward.”
   It would be a sin to have her at any other spot the way Pawlak finds the back of the net.
   She and Emily both made varsity as freshmen and Shannon scored one goal that year. She showed her potential as a sophomore with 12 goals and five assists, and exploded this past season.
   ”This year was definitely the first year that I concentrated all of my energy on becoming a better striker,” Pawlak said. “But these successes were not just me, they were 100 percent a team effort. I’m lucky to play with such talented girls who support me and help me to be successful.”
   Having a strong supporting cast is indeed, important. But when it comes to goal scoring, many times it must come from within.
   Coaches’ biggest disappointments at times, are when they have a talented player up front who does not have that desire or hunger to beat the keeper.
   As is often said, goal scorers have to want to score.
   Since Shannon developed that mindset, there has been no stopping her.
   ”As a target striker, my main responsibility is to hold the ball and find the next pass,” she said. “So for the past few years I have always been determined to do my job. As I tried to master this, I also knew I needed to start scoring.
   ”The real changing point in my game was when my (club) coach asked me to become a ‘goal a game’ player. I started scoring goals and because of this I started building a confidence within myself to start taking players on, turning, and getting the ball in the back of the net.
   ”So, I really only started getting ‘hungry’ within the last two years or so, and that is when I definitely solidified my position and found my niche on the field. This year I averaged over 1.5 goals per game so I was happy with that result.”
   Pawlak credits great coaching toward making her such a dangerous scorer, including club coach Davey Simpson and Princeton mentors Greg Hand and Val Rodriguez.
   ”Coach Hand instilled a lot of confidence in me,” Shannon said. “I think it’s because I always knew he believed I could do great things on the field, and I never wanted to disappoint him.”
   Pawlak also worked with trainer Vinny Kotowski prior to this season, which helped her deal with all the extra marking she got this year.
   ”He stressed how to deal with double teaming and a lot of defensive pressure,” Pawlak said. “This especially helped me during the high school season because I was double teamed a lot. His teachings allowed me to stay composed and not get overwhelmed with the constant pressure.”
   The great thing about watching Shannon play, is that any time she gets the ball at her feet, you can hear a murmur in the crowd, or someone going “Uh oh, watch out.”
   She is a danger to score most times she touches the ball, and she knows it.
   ”If I’m being blunt, I think I am a threat to score or at least someone that should often be watched,” Pawlak said. “I don’t think this applies every time I touch the ball, but if I’m near the net, I always either look to lay someone off or turn and shoot. Luckily, this strategy worked out well this year.”
   And while Shannon got most of the headlines — as is often the case with the goal scorers — she feels her twin sister deserves just as much credit for Princeton’s success.
   ”Emily is the backbone of our soccer team,” Shannon said. “We knew this all along but it was definitely solidified against PDS (in an MCT loss) when she was out due to an ankle injury. She is a solid defender, she reads the game like no other and steps up like a world class defender. Her importance is insurmountable.
   ”Everybody is confident in her abilities and when she’s in the back its like a weight has been lifted off our shoulders. Along with just her sheer skill, Em is a team player. She picks everybody up when we’re down and she really knows how to bring an energy and determination on and off the field.”
   Shannon used their freshman year as an example in a state game against Ocean. When keeper Lauren Ullman was injured entering penalty kicks, Emily volunteered to go into net despite her only goalie experience being in Futsal.
   ”That showed her commitment to the team,” Shannon said. “You can’t seriously ask for anything more from a teammate and a person. She is an essential component to not only the defense, but also the team.”
   And the sisters are essential components to each other’s success. What better way to improve your scoring than to work one-on-one against a top-flight defender? And what better way to improve your defensive skills, than to practice against the county’s top scorer?
   ”During the summer Em and I practice regularly in our yard juggling, passing, and shooting on our net we have in the backyard,” Shannon said. “It’s extremely helpful to have someone to play with outside of practice, especially if there haven’t been many opportunities to play.
   ”Along with this we go to the Cranbury School and play soccer tennis on the tennis courts, making a little sibling rivalry out of each game and definitely helping our skills altogether.”
   The kind of skills that will give CVC coaches nightmares for one more season.