Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 48
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
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CLEANING UP: Princeton High boys’ soccer senior goalie Steve Hellstern makes a save during PHS’s state tournament run. The Penn-bound senior posted 18 shutouts and yielded just seven goals in 25 games to help PHS go 21-0-4 and win its first state title since 1995 and the program’s third consecutive Mercer County Tournament (MCT) crown.

PHS Goalie Hellstern, PDS Tennis Star Lieb Get Nod as Town Topics’ Top Fall Standouts

Bill Alden

The numbers don’t lie when it comes to the brilliant season produced this fall by Princeton High boys’ soccer goalie Steve Hellstern.

The Penn-bound senior posted 18 shutouts and yielded just seven goals in 25 games to help PHS go 21-0-4 and win its first state title since 1995 and the program’s third consecutive Mercer County Tournament (MCT) crown.

But PHS head coach Wayne Sutcliffe will tell you that the numbers didn’t come close to explaining what Hellstern meant to the Little Tigers this fall.

“You can’t put a value on Steve; he works so hard and is so talented,” said Sutcliffe of his star keeper.

“Steve never gets too high, he never gets too low. The guys on defense work hard for him. I think that is a story of the year for this team; it is a special team because of those guys. The other guys are trying to put plays together and get into the front third and create chances and we are finding a way. But it really is the guys in the back that are the core of the team.”

Although PHS ended the fall without a loss, the team wasn’t exactly a juggernaut in the early going. Struggling to score goals, the Little Tigers eked out several close games in getting off to a 6-0-3 start.

The constant of the team was the play of Hellstern who produced one clean sheet after another and gave the whole team confidence in the process.

“I think you realize that you need to be perfect,” said Hellstern, reflecting on the pressure he felt as PHS worked on developing an offensive rhythm.

“If you can get past the fact that you need to be perfect, the conscious part of it, you are going to play better. Self consciously you are ready for everything because you know you have to be; but you can’t be worrying about it during the game.”

As a three-year starter for the Little Tigers, Hellstern worked to improve his leadership skills on the field, directing traffic around the goal.

“I think that they trust me,” said Hellstern, referring to the team’s defensive unit.

“We are all pretty much seniors back there. I definitely feel like it is my responsibility; I have been on varsity for the longest.”

As the team got into the MCT and state tournament, things came together and PHS ended the season with a dramatic 2-1 victory over Millburn in the Group III state title game.

Afterward, an elated Hellstern savored the defense’s role in the triumphant season.

“The defense has been a season-long story,” said Hellstern. “We got two goals from two defenders tonight and we got a goal stopped on the line by another. The entire team played great; I think we are going to remember this, all of us, for a long time.”

For producing a season in goal that led to a title and memories to last a lifetime, Hellstern is the pick as the Town Topics’ top male performer of the fall season.

Top Female Performer

Coming into the fall, Princeton Day School girls’ tennis star Samantha Lieb had set the bar high.

In her first two years with the Panthers, Lieb had swept the first singles titles in both the Mercer County Tournament (MCT) and the state Prep B tourney.

In 2009, Lieb and her teammates set their sights on another challenge-the state Prep A title.

At the MCT in late September, Lieb showed that she had taken her game to a higher level, breezing through the draw and topping Hun’s Kara Shoemaker in straight sets in the title match as PDS took second in the team standings.

For Lieb, winning a third MCT first singles crown was a special achievement. “It is a great thing to win for a third time,” said Lieb, who has never dropped a set in MCT competition.

“I am definitely going to back next year and hopefully get a fourth. Kara is a great opponent and she always gives me a run for my money; it always brings out the best tennis in me.”

As she reflected on the MCT victory, Lieb knew she would have to produce her best tennis with the Prep A competition on the horizon.

“I am so excited we are in Prep A,” said Lieb. “Coach [Patty Headley] gave us the option of having Prep A or Prep B. We won Prep B last year; I think we can win Prep A this year; I think we have a good shot to do it.”

With Lieb displaying her array of powerful shots, she went on win the Prep A first singles crown, besting her rival Shoemaker 7-5, 6-1 in the championship match.

Lieb’s victory helped the Panthers take the team title in impressive fashion, as they piled up 22 points to top runner-up Lawrenceville (18 points) and third-place finishers Blair (8) and Oak Knoll (8).

In the view of PDS head coach Headley, Lieb’s performance in the Prep A title match showed the growth in her mental game this fall.

“Sammy was playing Kara’s game in the first set,” said Headley of her junior star who went undefeated this fall. “She made some mental adjustments and became more focused in the second set.”

In maintaining her focus on the way to MCT and Prep A crowns, Lieb is the choice as the top female performer.

Top Newcomers

Zaid Smart figured to be in the middle of he pack for the Princeton High junior varsity boys’ cross country team when the 2009 season started.

But something changed for Smart in September and PHS head coach John Woodside realized that the junior could be a force on the Little Tiger varsity squad.

“Zaid’s first race this season was 19:30; he started to say what would happen if I try to run fast,” recalled Woodside.

“He found he could do it and that it felt good. He was real excited and I am real excited for him. It has gotten to the point where he has no fear and is really attacking.”

The affable Smart turned into a terror for PHS, taking 15th as PHS placed second in the team standings in the Mercer County Championships.

A week later, Smart produced his greatest performance of the season, placing ninth in the Group III Central Jersey sectional meet to help the Little Tigers place second in the team standings. Smart covered the 5k course in Jamesburg in a time of 16:52 and was PHS’ No. 2 runner in the competition.

Smart ended the season by taking 23rd in the Group III state meet, helping PHS to a fourth-place finish in the team standings, one place away from qualifying for the Meet of Champions.

Woodside was proud of how far Smart came this fall. “Zaid Smart has been the biggest surprise; he was a guy who I thought was going to be on JV,” said Woodside.

“He made it to varsity and has now solidified himself as our No. 3 runner. I think in the past, he was doing it for fun and was not truly committed. This season, he found himself running well and his work ethic got better.”

For working his way to the front of the pack on the PHS boys’ cross country squad, Smart is the pick as the top male newcomer this fall.

There was a bull’s eye on Samantha Asch’s back this fall as she began her career with the Princeton Day School girls tennis team.

The precocious freshman was nationally ranked and was rumored to have pushed PDS junior star Samantha Lieb hard in challenge matches for the first singles spot.

Asch ended up at second singles but she was no second banana. Seeded first in her flight at the MCT, Asch lived up to her reputation, cruising to the title without losing a set.

For Asch, coming through in the MCT as a freshman was a memorable experience.

“I was excited; I thought it would be a lot of fun,” said Asch, who topped June Lee of WW/P-S 6-1, 6-2 in the championship match.

“I thought it was great; I thought I played really well. I really had to push myself to win that match at the end because June is a really good player.”

As the fall went on, Asch proved to be a very good player, culminating the season by winning the second singles title in the state Prep A tourney.

PDS head coach Patty Headley pointed to Asch’s otherworldly court focus as a key weapon in the freshman’s arsenal

“My name for her is ‘relentless;’ she is the most completely focused player I have ever coached,” said Headley of Asch, who topped Lawrenceville’s Alex Ferrara 6-1, 6-0 in the title match.

“You could set off a firecracker next to her on the court and she wouldn’t notice. She just hones in and it’s like a terminator.”

Asch’s skills and power of concentration make her the pick as the top female newcomer.

Top Coaches

On paper, it looked like it could be a transition year for the Princeton High boys’ soccer team.

The Little Tigers took a major graduation hit, losing such stars as record-breaking scorer Sam Kotowski, Corey Marsh, Nick Hughes, Anastacio Perez, Will Slade, and Chris Bechler from a team that went 17-4 in 2008 and won the program’s second straight MCT title.

Noting that the program has weathered graduation losses in the past, Coach Sutcliffe was confident going into the fall.

“We bring back 13 lettermen; we have guys with a lot of experience and success in club soccer,” said Sutcliffe, who was in his 13th year guiding the Little Tigers.

“I think we can pick up where we left off. The level of excitement and camaraderie has been great.”

Even Sutlcliffe, though, would have had trouble imaging how exciting things got for PHS this fall.

Struggling to develop an offensive rhythm in the early going, PHS rode senior goalie Steve Hellstern and an athletic defense to go 11-0-4 in regular season play and earn the No. 1 seed in the MCT.

The Little Tigers proved that seed was justified as they roared through the draw, edging WW/P-S 2-1 in a downpour to earn the program’s third straight county title.

PHS poured in on in the Group III Central Jersey sectional tournament, outscoring its foes 7-0 to earn the title and the program’s first trip the Group III Final Four since 2006.

In the semis, PHS nipped Moorestown 1-0 as Sutcliffe outwitted his brother, Mike, the longtime coach of the Quakers.

Three days later, The College of New Jersey became Princeton South as a large throng of PHS fans travelled across the county to see the Little Tigers battle defending champion Millburn in the championship game.

With Sutcliffe devising an aggressive plan of attack to take advantage of the Millburn goalie, PHS jumped out to a 2-0 first half lead and hung on for a 2-1 win as the Little Tigers ended the season 21-0-4 and won the program’s first state crown since 1995.

In the middle of the raucous post-game celebration, Sutcliffe took his hat off to his gritty squad.

“It was a lot of hard work that came to fruition, just one game at a time, just one training session at a time; you build slowly,” said Sutcliffe, reflecting on the state title.

“Our guys have a tremendous amount of talent. They also have a tremendous amount of maturity and a great understanding for the game and they proved it.” And those guys also had a tremendous leader in Sutcliffe, who gets the nod as top coach of a male team this fall.

Ken Stevenson had a good feeling as his Hun School girls’ soccer team went through its preseason training.

“From the first day of preseason, the seniors have been really serious,” said Hun head coach Stevenson, whose team was coming off a disappointing 6-7 campaign in 2008.

“They have a sense that there is a real opportunity to be good this fall so let’s work hard. Even with the sprints, there has been no complaining.”

It didn’t take long for that hard work to pay off as the Raiders opened their season with a dramatic 2-1 win over Princeton Day School as Monica King scored a last-second goal to give Hun the win.

The Raiders kept winning all fall, going 10-4-1 and winning the program’s first-ever Mid-Atlantic Prep League (MAPL) title. Along the way, the Raiders posted two wins over perennial nemesis Peddie and also produced quality victories over such formidable foes as Lawrenceville, WW/P-N, Montgomery High, and the Hill School.

Hun made it to the quarterfinals of the MCT and the state Prep A title game, falling to national power Pennington in the latter contest.

Although senior defender Gina Fiori was disappointed by the season-ending loss to Pennington, she was proud of what Hun accomplished this fall.

“We had a great season; it has been amazing,” asserted Fiori. “The MAPL was the first one we have ever won in program history so we made history. It is amazing to be part of something that is so much bigger than yourself. We had a great group of girls this season; we worked so well together.”

Stevenson, for his part, credited Fiori and her classmates with sparking the program’s renaissance.

“This is my fourth year; these seniors and I really re-started the program together,” said Stevenson.

“To be thinking about where we were four years ago and where we are now is exciting. The difference is the leadership of the seniors. From the first day of preseason, they came to work and started to believe that the system and the expectations were going to lead them to success. They have the bar real high for those who are behind them.”

And for providing the leadership that helped Hun make history this fall, Stevenson is the choice as the top coach among female teams.

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