For Justin Leith, transferring to Princeton Day School from Nottingham High in 1996 during his sophomore year proved to be a transformational event.
“The whole PDS experience was the biggest game-changer in my life,” said Leith, a Hamilton native and basketball star for the Panthers who scored more than 1,400 points in his career and helped the team win two state Prep titles.
“You can take everything and it goes back to that and the opportunities there. It was all of those lifelong things. There was certainly a learning curve but I buckled down and was able to catch up.”
Now, Leith is looking to be a game-changer across Great Road at the Stuart Country Day School as he returns to Princeton to serve as the school’s new director of athletics.
“There is an energy here I felt; other places had great energy but this place had the best energy,” said Leith, the replacement for Kim Ciarrocca, who is moving to Michigan where her husband coaches for the Western Michigan football team.
“I felt an unbelievable connection and I felt so comfortable here. I didn’t want to come to a place where this is the position and just keep things the way that they are.”
Leith, 33, is bringing varied experience to the position, having starred for the Merrimack College basketball team before playing pro ball in Europe, Asia, Central, and South America. He also had a two-year stint as the strength and conditioning coach at the Peddie School and most recently was at the Asheville School in North Carolina from 2011-14, where he served as associate athletics director, an admissions officer, and boys’ basketball coach.
Playing basketball overseas from 2004-5 and 2007-11 reinforced Leith’s belief that relentlessly pursing a goal constitutes victory, no matter what the result.
“It was amazing, you put everything into something and you have no regrets,” said Leith, a 6’6 forward who had pro stops in the Czech Republic, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and Malaysia after a stellar college career that saw him score more than 1,500 points and grab more than 700 rebounds.
“Was the ultimate goal to play in the NBA, of course it was, but I was paid pretty well to play basketball and I put everything into it. It is like the man in the arena quote, at least I know I put myself out there and there is nothing wrong with that. The definition of success is really putting your all into something and whatever the outcome is, you are successful.”
For Leith, serving as the strength and conditioning coach at Peddie between 2005-07 gave him a glimpse of his future course.
“I lived on campus, I was a faculty member in residence,” recalled Leith. “I loved the academic setting. I always talk about the access you have to the kids. It is a boarding school, an independent school environment. I am a kid that came from an independent school so I know that academic rigor.”
Heading to the Asheville School after completing his pro career, Leith wore many hats as he immersed himself into that school’s environment.
“It was a great experience,” said Leith, whose fiancée, Meredith, joined him at the school and worked in the admissions office as they looked forward to their wedding that took place this June.
“After my first year, I was given the title of associate director of athletics. and was handed a lot more responsibility around school. I was doing a lot more admissions work. I was an advisor to six students. Boarding school is an animal. You are just working all the time. We both lived on campus; it is a lot but we enjoyed it. We loved the kids. When everything else is all said and done, you know people professionally but it is about the kids. That is what was so hard about leaving.”
Meeting the Stuart kids when he interviewed at the all-girls school helped convince Leith that he was making the right move.
“It is on the itinerary for the day that I am going to meet with some third graders,” said Leith.
“The head of the middle school brought in seven or eight third grade girls into one of the rooms here and left for 15-20 minutes. I was grilled. It becomes like OK, I cross my arms and I am going to fire back right at them. It put such a big smile on my face and I had such a good time with them. What a highlight, they were funny, they were articulate. They exuded so much confidence. That is what any father or parent would want from their daughter, especially at such a young age and obviously all the way through high school. It was like that all day, meeting the young ladies. I was at the student council meeting and they were asking questions. They were fantastic.”
One of Leith’s main goals as he takes the helm of Tartan athletics is to get more students playing sports.
“There are ways to do that; I have a lot of ideas about that,” noted Leith, who plans to resurrect Stuart’s upper school soccer program.
“The school that I am coming from is 275 kids, cut that in half, we are a similar sized school at the high school age and we fielded a lot more sports than here. There are requirement things that can be done.”
In addition to getting wider participation, Leith is determined to see the Stuart teams win more games.
“I want, in the next few years, through the department mission statement and our coaching, to have our athletic success meet our academic success because this is a great place for that,” asserted Leith.
“There seems to be a feeling, especially in the independent school world, that you do one or the other. You are either a strong academic school who is weak athletically or you are considered a weaker academic school and super strong in athletics.”
In Leith’s view, having the school’s varsity athletes reach out to Stuart’s younger students will help make that success possible.
“One of my goals for sure, is to have our varsity girls work with our middle school girls to help grow our programs,” said Leith.
“I really believe that needs to happen so when young ladies are in middle school, when they are around a varsity girl and they go to their games, they are looking up to them and saying that can be us someday. It is a great yield tool, going into our high school to keep our girls really excited about being here. If they are constantly understanding the mission of Stuart and it is embedded in them, they want to stay a part of it.”
While Leith has only been part of the Stuart community for a matter of days, he is already passionate about the school’s mission.
“I am extremely excited to be here,” said Leith. “My first day here, there is a buzz that is going on, people are working hard. It is all business but it is all for the benefit of Stuart. I hit the pavement running, it is a lot of stuff. It is a lot of small things. You have to put together scheduling, get stuff up on the internet, and return e-mails. We are looking for a trainer right now. I have a bunch of coaches that I need to hire. It is fun so far to be a part of it. It is only a week but when you walk down the hall there is constantly stuff going on already. Everyone is working together and being like a team.”