Even though the Princeton High boys’ lacrosse team was trailing Northern Burlington 9-7 going into the fourth quarter of their Mercer County Tournament opening round contest last Saturday, Alex Rifkin sensed that a rally was inevitable.
“We all knew that we expected way more of us and we all knew that we had it in us to win this game,” said senior midfielder Rifkin.
“The coaches didn’t say too much. It was more of the players just knowing what we needed to do and just executing.”
Rifkin executed with aplomb down the stretch, scoring two unanswered goals as sixth-seeded PHS drew even with the No. 11 Greyhounds at 9-9 with 4:34 left in regulation.
A minute later, fellow senior Coleman Preziosi, found the back of the net to give PHS a 10-9 lead. That tally turned out to be the game-winner as neither team scored over the last 3:33 of the contest.
In Rifkin’s view, the win was due, in part, to some veteran leadership. “Our seniors stepped up at the end,” asserted Rifkin. “There was some key shooting and some hard fighting in the midfield.”
For Rifkin, burying the game-tying goal was a matter of shooting practice paying off.
“I was really hoping that one was going to go in; I had practiced that shot from the top left everyday,” recalled Rifkin, who ended the day with two goals and two assists. “I knew I needed to hit it and I just did what I needed to do.”
Coming into this season, Rifkin was prepared to assume more responsibility offensively.
“I worked a bunch on the offseason on my shooting and I was working on my speed,” said Rifkin.
“I feel it is just finding my role on the team, I had to step up this year. I knew they needed me to score goals and I was going to do what the coaches needed me to do.”
PHS head coach Peter Stanton likes the way Rifkin has stepped up in his final campaign.
“Alex is an offensive talent,” said Stanton, who got three goals from Matt Purdy in the win over Northern Burlington with Preziosi and Kirby Peck adding two goals apiece.
“He is the type of player who can run by people and he can shoot the ball and put it in the goal on the run which is a pretty good gift. He can also find the open guy and pass for the assist so he is a double threat.”
Stanton acknowledged that Northern Burlington proved to be a threat to the Little Tigers, showing a lot of pluck after having lost 20-9 to PHS days earlier in a regular season contest.
“I think that enters into it a little bit,” said Stanton, when asked if his team had trouble getting pumped up for the rematch.
“But I think mostly you have to look at a team like that and applaud them for having such heart to come back and play us so hard.”
The PHS comeback came down to sharper play at both ends of the field.” “We gave up our goals going in transition and on the man up,” explained Stanton, whose team improved to 9-7 with the victory and was slated to face third-seeded WW/P-S on May 15 in the county quarters with the winner advancing to the semis on May 17.
“We just wanted to stop fouling and we wanted to play defense with our feet and take away those opportunities. We needed to protect the ball a little bit better. We made some adjustments with our shooting.”
Another key factor was the clutch play of the team’s seniors as they didn’t want to make an early exit from county competition, having advanced to the title game last spring.
“They are the ones that need to do it; they are the ones we rely on,” said Stanton, noting that senior goalie Elliot Wilson came up big down the stretch. “To their credit when things didn’t go well, they didn’t get discouraged.”
In Stanton’s view, the late rally could be an encouraging sign going forward. “We are hoping that the experience of having a close game and playing under pressure and needing to do heroic things late in the game benefits us,” said Stanton, whose team will also be competing in the state tournament this month.
“Obviously we would have liked to play a little better but our hope is that we benefit from this game.”
Rifkin, for his part, believes that PHS can raise the level of its game in tournament play.
“I absolutely think we will be dangerous going on,” maintained Rifkin. “We went on a five-game win streak earlier in the season and I think this team has the capability of building the momentum going into this tournament after last year’s epic loss in the finals [an 8-7 overtime loss to Notre Dame]. We need to know that we can’t take any game for granted. We need to go into every game ready to go, ready to perform, and ready to win.”