After suffering its first-ever loss to Allentown in early April, the Princeton High boys’ lacrosse team was fired up for a rematch with the Redbirds in the Mercer County Tournament championship game last Thursday.
“It was a long time ago but we still remember that loss,” said PHS senior defender Jack Persico, referring to the 13-8 setback on April 9.
“A lot of the team changed because we have got a lot of guys back and positions changed.”
Persico and his teammates didn’t waste time showing that those changes were going to lead to a different result in round two between the teams as the Little Tigers jumped out to a 7-0 lead midway through the second quarter of the contest at WW/P-N.
“I didn’t expect that,” said Persico, reflecting on PHS’ blazing start. “It was a tough game but we just managed to get the goals and they didn’t. We got the shots.”
PHS kept getting the goals as it went on to a 10-4 victory and the program’s first-ever MCT title.
As his teammates hugged each other and whooped it up in a raucous post-game celebration that started when PHS head coach Peter Stanton was doused with a bucket of water, Persico beamed as he reflected on the championship.
“In my athletics career, I haven’t brought home any titles or anything like that,” said Persico, also a star lineman for the PHS football team.
“I was really hoping this year to take it home. We finally got one and I am so stoked and so happy about it.”
Persico was particularly happy about picking up an assist on PHS’s seventh goal when he scooped up a ground ball and launched a long pass to Adam Ainslie, who buried the ball in the back of the net.
“That was literally all I have ever wanted for my entire lacrosse career,” said Persico, referring to his assist. “That was special.”
In Persico’s view, PHS’s success stems from a special unity. “It is chemistry,” asserted Persico. “I look out there at the starting lineup; I hang out with all of these guys. These guys are all my friends. That chemistry shows on the field, we all know what’s going on.”
That chemistry helped PHS stifle Allentown’s high-powered attack. “That is an offense we talked a lot about; they have some good players,” said Persico.
“That guy 15 [Stefan Pappas] is probably the best lacrosse player I have ever seen. It’s scary. You have to give it to Matt DiTosto; he shut that kid down. We wanted to play them straight up. We figured our defense was good enough to hold them to three or four goals and we did that. I feel proud of all the guys, and that we managed to pull that off.”
PHS head coach Peter Stanton is proud of the way his players have carried themselves in their title run.
“If you look at our team you might not be wow those guys are so nasty,” said Stanton, who hit the 200-win mark in his PHS career with the Little Tigers’ 7-6 overtime victory against Princeton Day School in the county semis.
“The sum is greater than the parts; the behavior, the attitude, the work ethic and our guys just always doing the right things. That’s the difference. That is a team of guys that did the right things for a long time.”
In the win over Allentown, the Little Tigers did everything right at both ends of the field.
“We felt all along that we had the ability to put that kind of effort out but every game we have had so far it is like we are pulling dandelions,” said Stanton, who got three goals from senior star Ainslie in the victory with Matt Corrado and Kevin Halliday adding two apiece.
“It is we got this fixed over here but there is something else over there. We felt like all along that we were growing and today we finally got it all together.”
Stanton saw Persico’s assist as exemplifying the team’s growth. “To me, that was the play that was like whoa, that ground ball that he picked up, running the ball up the field through that pressure and then making that pass was just amazing,” said Stanton.
After having come so close to the county title with overtime losses in the championship game and the semis in recent years, Stanton was thrilled to see PHS get the breakthrough win.
“It is a fantastic experience for this group of boys,” asserted Stanton. “In high school sports, it’s all about the now. It’s all about where these kids are now. Just look at the faces on these kids, they are ecstatic. It just means a whole bunch of happiness.”
PHS will be looking to experience more happiness as they take part in the state tournament where the Little Tigers have been seeded third in the Group III South sectional. PHS got off to a hot start in that tourney, topping 14th-seeded Mainland 12-1 last Saturday in an opening round contest in improving to 15-3.
In Stanton’s view, winning the county crown gives his team momentum going into states.
“We know the emotional drain of not winning that county title game; that’s a painful game to lose,” said Stanton, whose team was slated to host sixth-seeded Clearview on May 21 with the winner advancing to the sectional semis on May 23 against the winner of the quarterfinal matchup between second-seeded Shawnee and No. 7 Colts Neck. “To win it makes it real easy to take tomorrow off. It gives us a little shot going into the states.”
Persico, for his part, thinks the Little Tigers have a shot at another crown. “There are some tough teams there toward the end but I think we can make a run if we play the way we played today,” said Persico.
“I think from start to finish, this was our best game. From the first quarter to the fourth quarter, we played hard. We played consistently well. To hold a team like that to four goals, that’s good. That’s one of our better goal totals of the year. We played with more heart than we have played with all year.”