Anthony Gaffney hit the Community Park basketball courts this summer to help prepare for his junior campaign with the Princeton University football team.
Playing for King’s Pizzarama in the Princeton Recreation Department Summer Men’s Basketball League, Gaffney made quite an impression in his debut season, helping King’s to the championship series and earning Newcomer of the Year honors.
Flying all over the court, Gaffney displayed the athleticism and the will to win that has made him an All-League performer in the first two years of his Tiger career.
For Gaffney, playing hoops served as a natural complement to the conditioning and football drills that he underwent as part of the Princeton offseason regimen.
“It is a good way to stay competitive; I play basketball all the time anyway,” said the 6’3, 200-pound Gaffney, a native of Columbus, N.J. in Burlington County and an All-Prep performer and 1,000-point scorer in his high school basketball career at the Pennington School.
“I play pickup, I go to open gym. It is that extra conditioning, making sure I am active.”
Gaffney proved to be competitive from day one for the Tigers, starting against Lehigh in the 2012 season opener and going on to make All-Ivy League honors that fall at defensive back and return specialist. In 2013, Gaffney earned All-League honors at defensive back as Princeton tied Harvard for the league crown.
With the Tigers kicking off preseason practice next week as they prepare for their season opener at San Diego on September 20, Gaffney and his teammates are looking to stand alone atop the Ivies.
“We want to run the table this year so there are no questions,” said Gaffney. “We want to dominate everybody.”
For Gaffney, his run to stardom started at Pennington, where he made an immediate impact.
“There were a group of guys I knew from basketball who went there and that helped,” said Gaffney, who was an all-state football player at Pennington and broke triple jump and 4×400 records in track.
“I was given the opportunity to play early, I started as a freshman in both basketball and football. It is a small school.”
At the suggestion of the Princeton football coaches, Gaffney did a post-graduate (PG) year at the Taft School (Conn.) to solidify his spot in the Tiger program.
“Physically I got more mature, I developed as an athlete,” said Gaffney, reflecting on his year at Taft which saw him win state Class A Player of the Year honors and set a school record with 18 receiving touchdowns.
“There was better competition, every team had post-grads. I had to hone my skills. Academically it was a little more challenging, I took a couple of harder courses. I wanted to build my resume for Princeton. Being away from home is different, you are on your own. You don’t have your mother cooking your meals.”
Hitting the field for Princeton in 2012, Gaffney saw the dividends of his year at Taft.
“Truth be told, physically and athletically, I was good,” said Gaffney. “After the PG year, my body was ready. I wasn’t a 17-year-old, I was 18 turning 19. I could hang with the older guys.”
While Gaffney could keep up physically when he started in his debut against Lehigh that fall, he wasn’t up to speed with the nuances of the college game.
“Mentally, I had to learn a lot,” said Gaffney. “We play a lot of different schemes. Plus I was playing a pretty foreign position. I was recruited as a receiver so my main focus was offense. I played some corner and safety at Pennington and some corner at Taft the last three games when another guy got hurt. The first game was wild. I played both ways, it was a challenge.”
Two weeks later, Gaffney produced a breakthrough performance in a 33-6 win at Columbia, starring in the return game and in the secondary. “That was the first game where I felt I belonged and started to get the hang of things,” said Gaffney.
“I returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and made two interceptions. There was a snowball effect from there.”
With the Tigers improving to 5-5 from back-to-back 1-9 campaigns, Gaffney received the rare accolade of being named first-team All-Ivy at both defensive back and return specialist.
“Making All-Ivy was really good for first season,” said Gaffney, who made three interceptions and 35 tackles that fall and led the league with a 25.9-yard return average on 20 kickoffs.
“I wasn’t expecting that; it showed that the league and coaches recognized that I had a good year. It means a lot.”
In 2013, Princeton had a great year, rebounding from a season-opening 29-28 loss to win eight straight games on the way to going 8-2 overall and 6-1 Ivy.
“We lost that tight game to Lehigh, the Georgetown game (a 50-22 win) was a good game all around,” said Gaffney.
“We did a few things wrong but we won by a big margin. We did the same thing to Columbia. It was not just that we were winning, it was the way we were winning. The offense was really playing well and the defense was coming on; we were playing off of each other.”
In reflecting on the championship season, Gaffney points to a pair of road triumphs, a come-from-behind 39-17 win at Brown and a bruising 38-26 victory at Penn, as critical moments.
“The Brown game was key; we were in a big hole and we were on the road in a night game and it was a little chilly,” said Gaffney, noting that the Tigers were behind 17-0 early in the second quarter against the Bears.
“We said we have got to make plays and make it happen now. We got it together and from there we really played well. It is tough to win at Penn. It is always a physical game, that was another step forward.”
Earning the league title along with Harvard was a huge step for the program. “It may have meant more to the older guys because of what they had been through, starting 2-18 and then going 5-5,” said Gaffney.
“That progression meant a lot to them. It was good to be able to help them do that; it is just the beginning for the younger guys.”
This summer, Gaffney has been working hard to build on the superb beginning to his college career.
“For me, it is technique and doing what I can to be a better cornerback,” said Gaffney, who had 22 tackles and two interceptions last fall and a 21.0 return average.
“I am doing the conditioning workouts with some guys at home. I am going over to Princeton for 7-on-7s. A lot of guys are doing that, we are doing a lot of fine-tuning now.”
Gaffney is hoping to earn recognition this fall as one of the top cornerbacks in the country.
“I want to replicate what I have done and then some,” asserted Gaffney, when asked about his personal goals for the upcoming season.
“I have been All-Ivy, I want to take it to the next level and be an All American and one of the best players in the country.”