For Phillip Bhaya, playing for the Princeton University football team is something he envisioned doing as a grade schooler growing up in nearby Haddonfield.
“I can actually remember coming here with my family in the summer time and just coming onto this field when I was probably 10 years old and thinking it would be great to play here and here I am 11 years later,” said Princeton senior safety Bhaya standing on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium at the program’s annual media day.
Bhaya has not only emerged as a star in the secondary, he is a respected team leader, having been chosen to serve as a co-captain of the 2013 Tigers along with defensive lineman and classmate Caraun Reid.
Despite his current stature with the team and being an All-South Jersey defensive back, Bhaya was not a prized recruit for Princeton.
“When I was recruited, it was the year with the coaching change so it was a little shaky with the old staff going out and the new staff coming in,” said Bhaya.
“I actually didn’t get an offer until after signing day. When they offered, I jumped on it.”
Bhaya quickly jumped up the Princeton depth chart, seeing plenty of action as a freshman in 2010, making 20 tackles and earning the program’s Harland “Pink” Baker ’22 Award as the team’s top defensive freshman.
While Bhaya enjoyed success in his debut season, he acknowledged that it took a while for him to feel a comfort level.
“Probably at first, it was the speed of the game,” said the 5’11, 190-pound Bhaya.
“You have got great athletes at all positions. When you combine that with the mental speed of it, all the new plays, formations, checks that you have to be so locked in on every play, that is probably the biggest jump that you have to make from high school to the Ivy League level.
After a frustrating sophomore year where he was hampered by a quad problem and made only six tackles, Bhaya was back at full speed last fall as a junior and raring to go.
“I was excited; I moved back to safety, which I feel more comfortable with,” said Bhaya. “I had offseason motivation from that injury and it was great being able to come back and really help the team.”
Princeton produced an exciting season in the 2012 as the Tigers improved to 5-5 after two straight 1-9 campaigns.
“I think from top to bottom, just buying into the program, was something that we saw last year,” said Bhaya, who made 52 tackles and had three interceptions in 2012.
“No knock on the other years or some of the other guys but more than any year, last year we had guys stepping up and playing together for the first time. Once we got things rolling against Columbia and Lafayette, I think that really changed our mindset of going out and winning games.”
Winning the Harvard game last October in a rally for the ages which saw Princeton overcome a 34-10 fourth quarter deficit to earn a 39-34 victory over the previously undefeated Crimson is still on Bhaya’s mind.
“Obviously, that was a big game,” said Bhaya. “It is probably the best sports memory I have had; that comeback was something else.”
Being named as a team co-captain this spring stands as another great memory for Bhaya.
“It was a humbling honor; there is a lot of senior leadership on this team which now makes my job easy,” said Bhaya.
“We have leaders at every position. To be picked among the guys I have been working hard with for four years is something that was really humbling. I like to lead by example but I am not afraid to speak up. I can be a rah rah guy in the locker room if it needs to be. First, it is leading by example, working hard and doing the right thing.”
During preseason camp, the Tigers have been doing the right things to build on last year’s progress.
“I think we are excited to get going here but also more focused than ever,” said Bhaya.
“There are obviously new offenses and new defenses and different plays that everyone is trying to learn but we have a lot of depth and a lot of experience so guys know how to approach the camp atmosphere and know how to prepare.”
Bhaya is hoping that experience will come in handy when the Tigers host Lehigh this Saturday to open their 2013 campaign.
“It is a great program over there,” said Bhaya of the Mountain Hawks, who are 2-0 and currently ranked No. 19/22 in the country and have a three-game winning streak in the series, including a 17-14 victory over the Tigers in 2012.
“The last three years have all been pretty close games going down to the fourth quarter and obviously we didn’t come out on the right side the last three times so that is something that we would like to get done here. They are not in the Ivy League but we play them every year so we have developed a rivalry.”
The Tigers are determined to get it done in the Ivies as they look to move up from last year’s 4-3 league mark and third-place finish.
“We definitely have the pieces to take that next step from that 5-5 season last year where we were so close,” asserted Bhaya.
“I think what is going to help us get there is the experience we have had. We have so much coming back on offense, we have so many weapons. Defensively, we lost a couple of guys, Mike Catapano and Andrew Starks, but a lot of the guys played and had that experience from last year. We have been there before and we are going to know how to win and close out games at the end because every game in the Ivy League is close. There is so much parity in the league.”