Rancocas Valley senior Ryan Finley admitted that going back to high school soccer was a big adjustment that took time.
After his freshman year, Finley left Rancocas Valley for the U.S. under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla.
He spent his sophomore and junior years there and also received quite a soccer education, playing against the top national and international players in his age group.
Finley decided to come home for his senior year, and there was a transition.
His soccer career had taken him to places such as Spain, England and France. Now he was back playing in Burlington Township, Delran and Cinnaminson.
And as talented as his Rancocas Valley teammates were, nobody could compare to the players on the under-17 squad.
"Definitely, the first couple of weeks until midway through the season, it was a tough adjustment," Finley said.
Compounding matters was the groin injury he nursed early in the season. But as the injury healed, so did Finley's psyche, and he became accustomed to playing high school soccer.
And nobody around was playing at a higher level.
Finley ended the season with 20 goals and six assists while playing forward or sometimes as an attacking midfielder.
He saved his best for last, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win over Clifton in the state Group 4 final.
For his performance, Finley has been named The Inquirer's South Jersey boys' soccer player of the year.
As with most top players, one has to look beyond the stat sheet to assess Finley's true value. He created plenty of space for his teammates because of the defensive attention he attracted.
And in recent South Jersey history, few have been better at doing damage in tight space. From playing at the highest levels, Finley learned to control the ball in tight quarters and also to get rid of it quickly before the defense could converge.
Couple that with a shot among the hardest around and Finley had the total package.
He also plays with an edge that hasn't always endeared him to rival coaches or players. But as the season went on, that part was toned down slightly.
"I try to work on both sides of the game, physical and finesse," Finley said. "I think, coming back, a lot [of people] remembered me as kind of being a hothead, but going to Bradenton, I kind of cooled down."
Of course, coach Damon Petras had to make sure he stayed cooled. But Petras also didn't want to take away Finley's aggressiveness.
"Having that extra edge is what makes a player great," Petras said. "The thing about Ryan that you notice most is that he really wanted to win."
Another thing that had changed upon Finley's return was his physical stature. He is now 6 feet tall and weighs 170 pounds, and is difficult to push off the ball. In those two years, he grew about four inches.
"He's now such a strong kid, who has a great touch in tight space and is very composed," Petras said. "He liked to take players on and was very confident with the ball."
While Finley will continue some commitments with the under-18 national team, his main focus is on college. He will attend Duke.
No matter where his career takes him, Finley said, he will always be grateful for coming back and playing his senior year at Rancocas Valley.
"Coming in, I had a little negative attitude because of where I had been playing," he said. "My coaches and teammates helped me look at the positive rather than the negative, and now, going out as a state champion, I couldn't ask for anything more."