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Vol. LXV, No. 44
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
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FAMILY AFFAIR: Nina Rossi and her father, Luciano Rossi, show their spirit at a University of Maryland bonfire. This Saturday, the Rossis are both getting inducted into the PHS Athletic Hall of Fame, becoming the first father-daughter combo to be so honored. The older Rossi, a 1971 PHS alum, starred in football, wrestling, baseball, and lacrosse while Nina produced one of the greatest swimming careers in school history by the time she graduated in 2006.

Rossis Going Into PHS Hall of Fame Together; First Father-Daughter Combo to Be Inducted

Bill Alden

Luciano Rossi and his daughter, Nina, took radically different paths in their Princeton High athletic careers.

The older Rossi, a 1971 PHS alum, was a jack of all trades, competing in football, wrestling, baseball, and lacrosse.

Nina, for her part, confined her efforts to the pool, producing one of the greatest swimming careers in school history by the time she graduated in 2006.

This Saturday, though, the Rossis’ sports roads will converge as they get inducted into the PHS Athletic Hall of Fame, becoming the first father-daughter combo to be so honored.

Joining them at the dinner Saturday evening at the Nottingham Fire Company Ballroom as the seventh class of inductees will be Larry Friel ’49; Tom Bogia ’62; Johnnie Hill Hutchins ’65; Michael Hill ’65; Keith Wadsworth ’78; Gladys Rice ’82; Carlos Figueroa ’96; Ilia Shatashvili ’04; Joe Drulis — coach, and the 1951-56 boys’ track and field teams which each won the state championship.

For Luciano Rossi, becoming involved in sports helped him assimilate to life in the U.S. as he moved to Princeton from Pettoranello, Italy in 1956 when he was three years old.

“I started playing soccer at Valley Road as a kid,” recalled Rossi. “There were neighborhood games, we would get together and play other neighborhoods. There was always something going on.”

Once at PHS, Rossi made his mark on the football field and the wrestling mat.

He became a starter on the PHS varsity football team as a sophomore and went on to become a star running back, quarterback, and safety. Rossi was named an all-county offensive back as a senior and was named honorable mention all-state.

In wrestling, Rossi made the varsity as a freshman and emerged as one of the top heavyweights in the county by his sophomore season. He became the first PHS wrestler to win a district championship and he was the county heavyweight champion in 1969 and 1970.

Recalling his football career, Rossi points to his senior season as a highlight.

“We went 5-2-2; we were a real good football team,” said Rossi. “There was a group of eight of us who played both ways; we were a smaller team but we were strong. We gained respect for being a good football team.”

Even though Rossi was a relatively undersized heavyweight at 183 pounds, he quickly gained respect on the wrestling mat.

“Tom Murray got me into wrestling; he was the defensive coach in football,” said Rossi, now 58, who was affectionately known as “Lou John” during his PHS career.

“I used to play basketball in the winter; I didn’t even think about wrestling. As a freshman, I had about a .500 record. I did much better as a sophomore and after that. I went against a lot of heavier people; heavyweight was anyone over 178 pounds. I didn’t want to lose weight, I like to eat. In my junior year, I won the districts against one of the Hunterdon guys; that was one of my biggest achievements.”

Wrestling also brought Rossi one of the biggest disappointments as he fell short of wrestling for a state title in his senior year.

“I thought I had an opportunity to be a state champion that year; they were holding the states at Jadwin Gym instead of Atlantic City and I was looking forward to wrestling in front of the home fans,” said Rossi.

“I went undefeated in the regular season and went to the districts at Notre Dame against a guy from North Hunterdon. We had met on seven occasions and I had beat him every time. I ended up losing to him 3-2, he rode me the whole third period.”

For Rossi, who ended up going to Cornell where he played football for two years and then came back to Princeton to take over his father’s carpentry business, that frustration turned to joy when he saw Nina win the state title in the 200 freestyle as freshman in 2003.

“Things happen for a reason, I had shoulder surgery when Nina was a freshman so I got to see all of her meets,” said Rossi.

“I wasn’t able to win a state title; to see her do it as a freshman was emotional. I said to her ‘do you know what you did?’”

The younger Rossi certainly didn’t expect to reach those heights so early, considering that she had only been swimming competitively for a couple of years before entering PHS.

“I started swimming when I was 12; I actually started diving for the Community Park Bluefish but the water didn’t like my body,” said Rossi. “One of my friends asked me to swim for the Bluefish. I enjoyed it; I was just floating along. I wasn’t that good.”

Rossi got more serious about swimming the next year as she joined the Whitewaters swim club and started competing year-round.

Even though she got a third place in a sectional event with Whitewaters, she was wet behind the years as she joined the PHS program in 2002.

“I had no idea what high school swimming was about,” said Rossi. “I was in awe; I got in the pool and just did what they told me to do.”

It didn’t take long for Rossi to realize that she could do some special things. “In the Lawrence meet, I raced against Jenny Steiner in the 200 individual medley; Mr. Hand [PHS head coach Greg Hand] said we would be swimming against each other in the county meet,” said Rossi. “I touched her out and everyone was all excited because she hadn’t lost a race.”

The excitement kept building for Rossi as she dominated the county meet before going on to win her first state individual title.

“At county meet, after winning those events and setting records, it was great for me and it was great for PHS,” said Rossi.

“It hadn’t happened before. The state title in the 200 free was really special. I’ll never forget the look on Mr. Hand’s face. He was as surprised as I was when I beat Laura McCloskey. I was really excited to be on the top step of the podium.”

Rossi spent the rest of her PHS career at the top of the podium. She was named as the outstanding girls’ swimmer at the county all four years. As a senior Rossi broke the state record in the 100 butterfly and holds PHS records in the 200 free, 200 IM, 100 free, 100 fly, and the 200 medley relay. Her dominance helped the Little Tigers reach the state Public B team championship meet in her sophomore and junior years.

“After freshman year, everything came together,” said Rossi, pointing to a come-from-behind win in the 400 free relay in the county meet her sophomore year and the battle with Montgomery in the Public B finals that winter as two of the highlights of her career.

“I had great friends on the team. I love USA swimming and the YMCA but the swim team was like a second family. I still stay in contact with some of them and we always reminiscence about those days.”

After her sensational PHS career, Rossi joined the program at the University of Maryland women’s swimming program, where she had some tough early days.

“All the scheduling really threw me for a loop,” said Rossi. “I wanted college swimming to start; it was so different from high school. After the first semester, I got myself together.”

While Rossi wasn’t a dominant performer at the college level, she still had her share of highlights in the pool.

“I did not have a very good college swimming career when it came to individual times,” said Rossi, who specialized in butterfly and individual medley events. “I preferred the relays; there was so much energy. The ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) 800 free relay as freshman where we took third is a big memory.”

Excelling in the classroom left Rossi with some good memories as she earned ACC academic honors and the Maryland program’s scholar-athlete award.

“Since I didn’t start too well as a freshman, I was proud to end up with 3.6 average and bring it up like that,” said Rossi, who now teaches second grade at a school in Lanham, Md. “It taught me responsibility, organizing, and prioritizing.”

Rossi was particularly proud to learn that she had been inducted into the PHS Hall of Fame.

“I found out this summer; it was an honor,” said Rossi. “It was really special to go in with my father; he has inspired me. My dad gave me the body I have; I have all of his athleticism.”

Her father, for his part, views his involvement with PHS as a gift. “It is special to be going in with Nina,” said Rossi.

“I am glad I got to experience Princeton High; it was a wonderful opportunity. My dad left Pettoranello when he was 47 and gave me this opportunity. It is hard for me to take anything for granted; I am so grateful that he did that.”

And two generations of PHS sports fans can be grateful that they got to see the Rossis in action.

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