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Mercury All-Area: Nate Stewart makes the most of his one chance in Phoenixville’s historic season

Phoenixville senior Nate Stewart, the 2022 Mercury All-Area boys soccer player of the year. (Austin Hertzog - MediaNews Group)

Reputations are great. But they are formed exclusively from what came before.

Nate Stewart arrived with one to the Phoenixville boys soccer team this fall. Former Philadelphia Union and FC Delco academy player and Division I recruit to Navy all reside on his résumé.

But back in August when the Phantoms’ preseason commenced, the Phoenixville senior was none of those things. He was just a rookie.

“I had to earn my role to be honest,” Stewart said. “My dad said to me, ‘You are nothing currently. The coach doesn’t know you. He knows who you are, but he doesn’t know you. The kids know you but you haven’t played together.

“You are starting from the ground floor.’”

The elevator didn’t stay on the ground floor for long. With Stewart earning a place in the central midfield, Phoenixville trended upward in a hurry, not only through his play but through the leadership and standard of expectation he brought.

Helping to transform Phoenixville from a 9-9 team in 2021 to this fall’s undefeated powerhouse in the regular season that ultimately reached the District 1 Class 3A final and PIAA 3A semifinals – a floor only two other teams have reached in PAC boys soccer history – Stewart proved the missing ingredient in a performance worthy of Mercury All-Area Player of the Year honors.

Stewart had a role in 45 goals – 19 goals and 26 assists – and was the creative force in the Phantoms’ high-powered attack fronted by fellow first team selection Efe Ulcay (31 goals, 15 assists). Along with freshman Jack Illig, another All-Area first team, and a huge senior class, Phoenixville’s offense was the story of the PAC regular season. The Phantoms scored 120 goals on the year, 51 more than second place in the PAC.

“The whole team really meshed together well as the year went on,” Stewart said. “I think everyone was so important in the year the team had and the year I had, the year Efe had.”

Phoenixville senior midfielder Nate Stewart.

After spending his first three years of high school eligibility playing at the academy level, Stewart made the most of his one and only season suiting up for the Phantoms.

“It was a great experience. I’m really happy I did it. I always wanted to do it, but when it came down to deciding whether to play high school for Phoenixville or not, I was torn between playing club and not, but I’m so happy I did it. It was so much fun.”

It can sound easy to just plug and play a talented player into a lineup. But meshing a potentially leading player into any already-formed team isn’t as simple if egos and expectations get involved.

“I could see what his qualities were but all that stuff can go out the window if the kid is a jerk and comes in with an attitude that he’s above it, that can turn into a negative situation. But luckily Nate is the exact opposite,” Phoenixville coach Mike Cesarski said. “He comes in and wants to set the standard for how hard we work every possession drill, how focused we are in every shooting drill, how you defend in every defensive drill. He’s the type of person that set the tone for things rather than taking anything for granted.”

Playing in the academy system offers a higher level of play than the high school game and greater visibility for reaching the college level and beyond. It’s highly competitive in and out of teams when playing time and opportunities are currency.
On the flip side, it’s also why the high school game allowing student-athletes to play with their friends and classmates and represent their school is a draw especially once college recruitment is set.

“Through academy, they’re your teammates and your friends, but they’re also your enemies. You want to out-perform, you want to be the (top) guy on the field,” Stewart said. “With (high school play) it was a great mixture of my friends, guys I’ve known my entire life. I was able to play with my friends and on top of that have something to play for. To play for Phoenixville and be able to win these games for Phoenixville made it really fun for me. I was able to be competitive but also have fun with my friends, which I hadn’t really been able to experience before.”

In 2017, it’s a path Drexel graduate and former All-Area player of the year Kyle Tucker took when he joined Phoenixville his senior year and led it to a PAC championship. Stewart knew of that road and hoped to follow, which was made possible after accepting an offer from Navy last July.

High school play also offered Stewart some perspective on finding joy in the process after negotiating years of the higher-pressure academy system dating back to age 11 when he joined the Union system. He felt great about his choice from early on.

“I learned that I had to have fun, enjoy it and enjoy the guys I was on the team with,” he said. “We really bonded over preseason and we laid really good groundwork over preseason that we could build upon, and we did.
“I always knew we were going to be special from the preseason, but I didn’t think it would be to the extent we were to be honest.”

Phoenixville ran the table through its PAC schedule (13-0) and capped the regular season 16-1-1, good for the top seed in the PAC and District 1-3A playoffs.

“The mentality he brought gave our other players confidence,” Cesarski said. “It sends a signal to everyone that this season is that much more of an opportunity and no one wants to be the reason why we don’t take advantage of it. He has that expectation of himself and it becomes infectious.”

The PAC semifinals didn’t go as planned when the Phantoms were stunned by Upper Perkiomen in overtime, 4-3. It’s a loss Stewart took hard, but served as an inflection point for the Phantoms to take nothing lightly the rest of the way.

“To be honest, I let myself down and I let the team down,” Stewart said. “To lose like that and have a bad game, I felt like it was on my shoulders. That didn’t sit well and I was pretty motivated for the upcoming games.”

Stewart says he’s someone who thrives under pressure, which is the perfect composition for the postseason. Phoenixville handled Lower Moreland in the district first round, then took down Holy Ghost Prep to earn the school’s first berth to the PIAA Championships.

Springfield-Montco played the foil to Phoenixville in the District 1 final and again in the PIAA semifinals – sandwiched around state playoff wins over Archbishop Ryan and Cocalico – but the Phantoms put forth a run equaled by only two previous PAC boys teams (2008 Pottsgrove, 2019 Boyertown).

“Every season I write down my goals and I put them above where I sleep. Every day when I wake up I see them. Among the goals I had were to win PACs, and make states,” Stewart said. “We didn’t win PACs, but I made sure we got something else and made states. It was a great thing for the team. It was so great to see everyone so happy and excited. It was cool to say ‘We’re going to states.’ It was amazing to be the first team to be able to say that.”

Stewart will follow family lineage by attending a service academy. His father, Jason, attended West Point and grandfather Walter Stewart also served in the Army.

“My dad, my grandpa, my dad’s side of the family there are so many people that served,” Stewart said. “When it came to me, it didn’t feel like I had to do it, but I wanted to do it, wanted to make my dad, my mom (Tracy), my grandpa, my sister (Lily), all of them proud.

“I knew my whole life this was something I wanted to do. I want to live a life of significance and do something where I can change the world, be a part of history and something bigger than myself.”

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