Even though the Princeton High boys’ swimming team was rarely tested as it cruised to the state Public B semifinals, Greg Hand made sure that his swimmers kept focused.
“The challenge was to establish habits of how we are going to conduct ourselves when we know we have a succession of meets that don’t require your best,” said PHS head coach Hand, whose team bought a 15-0 record into its clash last week against Summit in the state semis at the WW/P-S pool.
“You don’t want to be lackadaisical and not pay attention to the details like how are we going to relate to each other on the deck and when our teammates are in the water. We had to value starts, turns, and finishes and the last 10 yards of the race and establish a culture of taking themselves seriously no matter what the score is.”
As his swimmers battled Summit in a rematch of last year’s state semis, which saw the Little Tigers prevail on the way to a state title, Hand liked their serious mindset.
“The focus you could see before boarding the bus all the way to the end of the meet was excellent,” said Hand.
“In the face of a different kind of challenge they did everything they could to beat Summit, that alone said something about them.”
While PHS ended up falling to Summit by 87-83, the pluck displayed by the Little Tigers said a lot about their competitive fire.
“We really swam aggressively; there was very little discussion about the score on the deck,” said Hand.
“There were external indicators of the internal. Entering the states we had 4,036 power points and we scored 4402 against Summit so that was an increase of around 360 in two meets. That is the best increase we have ever had in that time frame.”
The Little Tigers produced 1-2-3 sweeps in both the 200 and 500 freestyle races to keep the pressure on Summit as junior Peter Kalibat placed first in both events followed by senior John Bond and junior Scott MacKenzie.
“They fit together; I think they thought their best swimmer would take second to Peter,” said Hand.
“After we went so fast in the 200, I think they got nervous. John and Scott were swimming so well. John had a PR in 200 and in 500, where he broke his record by five seconds. The 500 kept us in there, it was big to get the 13-3. We knew that they had a fast 200 free relay and that left us in a significant hole.”
The Little Tigers nearly climbed out of that hole as junior star Will Stange won the 100 back and senior Daniel Andronov and junior Colburn Yu went 2-3 in the 100 breast to help PHS draw within 81-75 heading into the 400 free relay, the last event of the meet.
Trailing 81-75 heading into the meet-ending 400 free relay, PHS had a chance to pull out a victory. The Little Tigers needed to finish first and second in the relay to win the meet or a first and third to earn a tie and have the meet decided by power points, which ended up being in PHS’s favor.
With the din reverberating in the WW/P-S bubble, Summit took a lead in the relay only to see Stange produce an amazing anchor leg that led to the top relay quartets ending in a dead heat. As a result, Summit was able to pull out the 87-83 win and PHS’s hopes for a title were dashed.
“I would put his swim in the context of the whole team going in lane four,” said Hand, reflecting on Stange’s heroics.
“Matt Purdy did a nice job in the 100 and then he came back and swam a second faster than that race. He set a tone. Kalibat swam a 47.62, which is an extremely fast split particularly considering he already had two fast swims. Yu came in and did a season PR and that split still left us 10 or 12 yards behind when their fastest swimmer (Will Benn) started off. I have seen some great comebacks, Nina Rossi had several. Will’s swim was something of the same quality; to close a big lead like that is exceptional.”
Hand was not surprised that Stange stepped up when the chips were down.
“Will was a real leader on the deck, not just in the sense of encouraging the others but setting a model in the sense that he was really going to do something big,” said Hand.
“He is not an introvert, he is gregarious and friendly. He has a strong sense of himself in a positive sense, not in a vain or egotistical sense. When he says he is going to go in and go after that guy, the other guys are inspired.”
In reflecting on the season, Hand said the team’s corp of seniors provided inspiration.
“We have an understated but impressive group of young men who were real leaders, five of the seven were with us for four years and other two were with us for two years,” said Hand of his seniors, who include Peter Cohen, Alden Reyes, John Robles, Patrick Schultz, and Stephen Schultz, in addition to Andronov and Bond.
“There was so much character and so little fanfare. Each is a terrific guy. They were level headed guys and they kept us well-centered. In four years, they went to two state semis and two finals and went 67-4 in dual meets.”
With such stellar juniors returning in Kalibat, Stange, Yu, Purdy, and MacKenzie, PHS should continue its tradition of tournament success.
“We have some terrific guys who are coming back who we know are committed,” said Hand.
“We know how they train and how much they like the PHS team. All of them are going to get better, every team counts on that. Summit had all those guys come back for them and they were so much better this year.”