Earlier this year, Bishop Eustace boys' soccer coach Dave Moffa decided, for a period, to turn over the reins of the team to his senior class.

"We told all of the players that as coaches, we weren't even going to speak to them pregame, we brought the captains up and let them run the pregame," Moffa said. "They ran the tactical stuff, organized the team, and got the players ready.

"It was a way for the captains to show their leadership and take ownership of the team."

Really, the gesture was a way for the coach to show the faith he had in his players.

And since then, they've done nothing but reward him for it.

Eustace, a team on the rise over the last three seasons, made a massive early  statement when it knocked off perennial area powers Cherokee, Shawnee, and Cherry Hill West in consecutive games between Sept. 16 and 20.

Eustace lost in overtime to Shawnee in the previous two seasons. And West, one of the Crusaders' biggest rivals, edged them by one game for the Olympic Conference National Division title last season.

Suddenly, though, Bishop Eustace is being talked about among the top teams in South Jersey — real contenders for the Coaches Tournament and Non-Public A South titles, and a threat to Cherry Hill West's claim on the division crown.

If you ask the Crusaders, it largely comes down to the mental side of the game.

"Our chemistry is high, things are just clicking —  we're doing little things right off the field that we weren't doing last year," said senior midfielder A.J. Pietrangelo, one of the team captains who was proud to take the reins when Moffa handed them to him. "That was definitely a different experience — not something I'm used to. But I'm close enough to these guys where I'm not afraid to say what's on my mind. And they know not to take it personally. At the same time, I try to be the first person who cheers them on when they do something right."

Pietrangelo has been a leader for Eustace since his freshman season.

He has started on varsity each year of his high school career and led the team with 12 goals and five assists as a junior.

The fact that he is again putting up solid numbers — he already has seven goals and four assists for the 8-1 Crusaders — is no surprise.

But what many around the area didn't see coming was the emergence of several other key contributors.

Bishop Eustace has been remarkably balanced on offense.

Mason Domico has six goals. Matthew Pattison has five. And Vincent Lamina has four.

Those three players combined for just eight goals all of last season.

"We knew they could do it, and they believed in themselves," Moffa said. "They were waiting for their turn — they want to be that next guy to step up.

"They're confident, and that's been part of their success."

The Crusaders say they're not getting ahead of themselves this early in the season.

Keeping a level head is how they weathered the stretch of Cherokee, Shawnee, and Cherry Hill West.

But the team knows what it's capable of and is ready to see how much more it can accomplish.

"I think we've set a really good foundation starting with how well we were playing dating back to last year — and we've been growing even before that," Moffa said. "This year, we're just trying to work every day to take it to the next level."