Kevin Halliday believed the Princeton High boys’ lacrosse team was in good shape as it clung to a 9-7 lead over Allentown with three minutes left in the fourth quarter of the Mercer County Tournament championship game last Thursday.
“All year long we have been pretty good at holding the ball in our box when the game is on the line and it is winding down,” said PHS senior star midfielder Halliday.
But with the Little Tigers minutes away from clinching a second straight MCT title, things went awry. “We made a couple of mistakes and they made some great plays,” said Halliday.
Indeed, the Redbirds reeled off three straight goals, the last one coming with 14.1 seconds in regulation, prompting celebration on the Allentown sideline as victory seemed imminent with a 10-9 lead and only a few ticks remaining in the clock.
As Halliday lined up for the last face-off of regulation, he had a vision. “When I came over to the wing, I was like oh god if I could get a goal right here, it would be a highlight play,” recalled Halliday.
The ball came to Halliday’s side and he scooped it up and sprinted to the goal and made the highlight play he envisioned, burying the ball in the back of the net with 4.1 seconds left to knot the game at 10-10 and force overtime.
“I wasn’t expecting it to happen; it bounced out and I got the ball,” said a smiling Halliday.
“There was one guy, I saw the time and I thought it is now or never. I went to the goal and luckily I was able to get by the other guy and get it in the net.”
Moments later, Halliday got another good bounce as he gathered in the ball on the overtime faceoff and fired in the game-winning tally 10 seconds into the extra session.
“The coach said ‘Kevin be a ballhawk, find the ball,’” said Halliday, who had four goals and an assist in the contest.
“I wasn’t expecting to find the ball in front of the net with no one on me but I got it and I am a senior captain and I have got to make that shot.”
Making that shot set off a raucous celebration as the Little Tigers basked in the glow of their second straight MCT crown.
“It is huge for this team and it is huge for this program,” said Halliday, reflecting on the title repeat.
“Before last year, we hadn’t had a Mercer County championship under our belt and we felt like we always had the talent and finally we just got it going. It feels really great to be part of this team.”
In Halliday’s view, PHS’s special unity has helped make it a championship team.
“Our coach (PHS head coach Peter Stanton) has been saying all year that this is one of the best teams he has coached,” said Halliday, who also stars at soccer and will be playing that sport for the Tufts University men’s program starting this fall.
“We are so close; in every practice, everyone is working together. It is competitive; defense versus offense but it’s all good.”
PHS head coach Stanton cited his team’s ability to work through adversity as a key to overcoming Allentown.
“We learned it from the South game (a 10-9 overtime win against WW/P-S in the first round of the MCT), keeping an emotional balance so if a bad play happens, have one bad play and then turn around and have an excellent one,” said Stanton.
“So today there were a lot of times where we had a lead and we could have been saying we got this game and then they came back. We stayed present the whole game and that is a credit to our boys being able to listen what I ask them to do and then do it.”
The squad’s combination of offensive balance and rugged defense has helped the Little Tigers stay at the front of the pack in the county.
“Kevin made the heroic plays today but it is our whole team,” said Stanton, who got three goals from senior Matt Purdy in the win over Allentown with freshman Johnny Lopez-Ona chipping in two goals and three assists and senior Matt Corrado contributing two goals and two assists.
“In the Hopewell game (a 7-3 win over Hopewell Valley in the MCT semis), afterwards we talked about who was the star of that game and we said nobody was great. Our team played great in that whole game and there is nothing more exciting than when a team shares a huge victory.”
Stanton pointed the leadership of Halliday and his fellow seniors as playing a great role in establishing the team chemistry.
“We have been praising them all season long,” said Stanton, whose Class of 2014 included Adam Durner, Zeid Hashem, quad-captain Patrick McCormick, Warren Santoro, Dalton Sekelsky along with captains Purdy, Corrado, and Halliday.
“Nobody outworks those guys. They are phenomenal at supporting the younger players; they are phenomenal at supporting each other. We always talk about let’s be the team that people want to be on and they make it a team you want to be on. We have fun. We have dance contests; we sit around and watch videos together.”
The Little Tigers are looking to have some more fun in the state tournament where they have been seeded fourth in the Group III South sectional.
“That’s the thing about this time of the year, you would like a little time to just sit down and say this is great,” said Stanton, whose team topped 13th-seeded Hightstown 9-5 last Saturday in its state opener to improve to 15-3 and was slated to host No. 5 Lacey in a quarterfinal contest on May 20 with the winner advancing to the semis on May 22.
“This is a major goal for them and they will have an opportunity to enjoy it and hopefully quickly set their sights on the next goal.”
Halliday, for his part, is looking forward to going after the goal of a state crown.
“We have some pretty tough competitors in the states,” said Halliday, who helped the PHS boys’ soccer team to a pair of state Group III titles.
“Shawnee (the top-seeded team in the sectional) is a great team. We saw them last year and lost in a close game and we are hoping to see them again on their turf and seeing what we can do. My experience in lacrosse and soccer is that when you do well in the counties, you get a big boost going into the states.”