After falling 10-8 at Shawnee High in the state Group III South sectional semifinals last Thursday, the players on the Princeton High boys’ lacrosse team trudged disconsolately across the field to their bus.
As they neared the visiting stands, the PHS parents and supporters who made the trek to the contest gave them an ovation, prompting waves from the players and even a few smiles.
PHS head coach Peter Stanton certainly felt that his squad deserved a hand. “You look at Shawnee and the athletes they have on that team; they were South Jersey Group IV football champions, which is extremely competitive,” said Stanton.
“Their coach told me that pretty much every kid on that team plays both sports so that is a team loaded with big, fast, strong, athletic kids that are good lacrosse players. I think we gave that team everything they could handle. I think that team is really happy that they advanced today.”
Showing no fear, the fourth-seeded Little Tigers came out firing against the top-seeded Renegades, jumping out to a 3-0 lead. Shawnee stormed back with six unanswered goals and then the Little Tigers made it a 6-4 on a goal by senior star Matt Purdy.
Moments later, thunder rumbled in the distance and the game was delayed. After the teams came back, Kevin Halliday scored for the Little Tigers to narrow the gap to 6-5.
There was a second delay and then the game resumed without interruption. Unaffected by the stoppages, PHS got goals from Rory Helstrom and Halliday to take a 7-6 lead with 1:17 left in the third quarter.
Shawnee reeled off four straight goals to seize momentum but the Little Tigers never stopped fighting. Purdy tallied with 1:14 left to make it 10-8 and PHS forced a turnover with 39.3 seconds left. Stanton called a timeout to set up a play but the Little Tigers were unable to find the back of the net as their season ended.
Stanton, for his part, was emotionally spent in the wake of the tough loss. “When a game like that is over, I don’t have the emotions because I am just so pumped on adrenaline from being in a battle,” said Stanton, who got four goals from Halliday in the defeat with Purdy adding two and Rory Helstrom and Joe Hawes adding one apiece.
“Tonight when I go home, it is damn, our time with these kids is over and we’ll feel a lot of sadness.”
The Little Tigers, though, have a lot to be proud of as they produced another stellar campaign.
“You look at how much courage and heart our players showed,” said Stanton, whose team ended with a final record of 16-4.
“We don’t have the numbers and we have played a really long stretch of lacrosse going back to the beginning of the Mercer County Tournament. We played Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and then played Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday in the states. We are extremely proud of what we accomplished this season to be back-to-back county champions and to advance to play a likely group champion.”
The team’s seniors certainly handled themselves like champions. “It starts with what they did in the offseason as far as preparation,” said Stanton, whose group of seniors included Adam Durner, Zeid Hashem, Patrick McCormick, Warren Santoro, Dalton Sekelsky, Matt Corrado, along with Halliday and Purdy.
“They worked in the summer, they worked in the weight room. They really mentor the younger players. They set the example of how to practice. They set the example of how to play and they set the example of how to lose. They played a great game and they are proud of themselves. I know that in 15-20 years, these guys will be close friends.”
If the team’s returning players can follow the example of the seniors, PHS should remain in the championship mix.
“You love the young kids,” said Stanton. “This is a team of overachievers. These young guys have the role models and the template of how we do it.”