July 3, 2018

PHS Runner Hare, PHS Girls’ Lax Star Lopez-Ona Get the Nods as Town Topics’ Top Spring Performers

FINISHING KICK: Princeton High running star Will Hare heads to the finish line in a cross country race last fall. Senior Hare ended his PHS career on a high note this spring, placing first in the 3,200 run at the Mercer County Championships, the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional and the state Group 4 meet, helping the Little Tigers to the team title in each of the meets. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

As Will Hare headed into this spring for his final season with the Princeton High boys’ track team, he was paying attention to detail.

“It was really a lot about taking care of the little things in the spring,” said Hare. “I wanted to set myself up as best as I could to be running well in late May and early June. Those are really the meets that define the season and, in my case, my career.”

Hare’s focus on the little things helped him do a lot of big things as he ended up taking first in the 3,200-meter run at the Mercer County Championships, the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional and the state Group 4 meet. He placed second in the Meet of Champions in a school-record time of 9:07.12 to nationally ranked Devon Hart of Point Pleasant Borough High. In addition, Hare starred on the 4×800 relay which placed first at the county, sectional and group meets.

For Hare, succeeding at the relay as well as the 3,200 was an added bonus.

“It started off that I just wanted to win the 3,200 at all of those meets, but the when we ran as well as we did at Mercer County Relays in the 4×800, that became a relay that we really wanted to focus on,” said Hare.

“We wanted try to make it a strong point of our team. That became something I really looked forward to, and doing that with all of the guys was something really special.”

Helped by Hare’s heroics, the PHS boys’ squad enjoyed a spring for the ages as it won the team title and the county, sectional and Group meets, bringing a sense of history to their meets. “Midway through March, some of the kids found this big box of old track and field records; it was not the best times, but the recordings of all of the meets from the early ’70s to the ’90s,” said Hare.

“So we ran through that and looked at all of the different stuff that they did. We really got into that and coach [Marc] Anderson came and talked to our team. We were very conscious of everything we were doing to bring Princeton the glory that they had in the 1980s.”

For Hare, the most glorious moments of the season came in the Group 4 state meet as PHS tallied 81 points to edge runner-up East Orange by five points

“Jim Lambert of NJ MileSplit nonchalantly goes up to me and says ‘you guys need big points in this 3,200 to win,’” said Hare, who is headed to Penn where he will compete for the school’s cross country and track programs.

“I was like, oh well, this was the first time that if I don’t win this race, we are not going to win this meet. I went in with the mentality that it had to be my day and luckily it was. That was the big highlight for me because it has been a long time since we have had someone on the distance side win a group title. The 4×800 in the groups might have been the most fun track race I have ever been in. With the amount of talent in that field and the quality of runners that we were going up against, to be able to go out and put on a show in that race is something that I will not forget for a long, long time.”

PHS track boys’ and girls’ track associate head coach Ben Samara won’t soon forget Hare’s contribution this spring.

“Will has been able this year, with the emergence of our sprint crew, to put his head down and do his work instead of having the spotlight on him all of the time,” said Samara.

“I think that has really benefitted him. He is just putting in work, that is the best way I can put it. Will always has the luxury of being towards the end of the meet; he can really begin to take us home, and he relishes that spot.”

Hare, for his part, credited the PHS coaches with helping him come through in the big spots.

“I attribute a lot to our coaching staff, coach [Jim] Smirk probably most of all, because he has put a lot of faith in me,” said Hare of Smirk, the cross country head coach and distance coach for the track program.

“He has always been there when something doesn’t go right, saying that just because something isn’t going right doesn’t mean that nothing will ever go right again.”

For keeping the faith and ending his career with historic wins that helped PHS produce a season for the ages, Hare is the choice as the Town Topics top male performer of the spring season.

Top Female Performer

When the Princeton High girls’ lacrosse team found itself trailing Rancocas Valley 8-3 in the second half of the Group 3 Central Jersey sectional final this May, Mariana Lopez-Ona took matters into her hands.

The PHS junior midfielder tallied three goals down the stretch of the contest to help the Little Tigers pull out a thrilling 9-8 win.

The outburst by Lopez-Ona exemplified her persistence as well as her skill, according to PHS head coach Sara Doran.

“In the first half I could tell Mariana was a little flustered, some of her shots weren’t coming through,” said Doran. “For her to be able to turn that around in the second half and play her game, it was just a testament to the kind of player she is. She plays so beautifully.”

Lopez-Ona, for her part, was confident that PHS could turn things around after a 1-5 start this spring.

“We have always played the tough teams; it has helped us a lot as we go into the rest of the season, learning from them and learning from our mistakes,” said Lopez-Ona. “We will be sharper. It is a tough beginning to have, but we were playing top 20 teams and we fought then really well.”

Contributing at both ends of the field, Lopez-Ona helped the Little Tigers catch fire down the stretch.

“We have a lot of good people on the team and I hope to have everyone involved and moving,” said Lopez-Ona. “I try to work on my defense, I feel sometimes I focus too much on my offense.”

It was Lopez-Ona’s offensive production, which included 115 points on 90 goals and 25 assists in addition to solid work on the draw controls, that triggered PHS to its late run as it ended the spring with a 13-11 record.

In the view of Doran, Lopez-Ona’s ability to remain even-keeled in the heat of battle is a key factor in her success.

“They put a lot of pressure on her and she is very good at maintaining her composure,” said Doran. “She is just always a solid force for us.”

Reflecting on her approach, Lopez-Ona likes to keep things simple. “I think it is just playing hard to the end and starting off from the first whistle,” said Lopez-Ona, who has committed to the University of Michigan, where she will play for its women’s lax program.

Lopez-Ona’s hard effort and production from beginning to the end of the season earns her the nod as the top female performer.

Top Newcomers

Gabe Craven didn’t waste any time making an impact for the Hun School boys’ lacrosse team in his debut for the program.

The sophomore goalie made 11 saves as Hun edged rival Princeton Day School 10-8 in its season opener.

Craven kept coming up big all spring, totaling 125 saves as the Raiders went 9-3. He rose to the occasion in the state Prep A title game, recording 15 stops as Hun edged Lawrenceville 9-6 to win the championship.

“Gabe was a great addition to the Hun lacrosse program,” said Hun head coach MV Whitlow. “He had a great year for a sophomore goalie. He played his best game in the championship game. Some of his success can be attributed to the defensive unit and their work together; schematically, they played tough and smart to put shooters in some spots for Gabe to see some shots that he has good looks at.”

In Whitlow’s view, Craven has a great future ahead of him in the cage.

“Gabe has a lot of energy and drive, a great work ethic,” said Whitlow. “That combined with his success gives him a great deal of confidence; he’s earned it. He’s an excellent young goalie who will only develop and get better. He’s self aware, knows his weaknesses, and works to make them strengths.”

Ben Kioko took up the javelin this spring for the Princeton High boys’ track team and the sophomore proved to be a prodigy.

The neophyte thrower burst on the scene, taking second at the Mercer County Championships with a heave of 164’1, second at the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional with a best throw of 172’9, and third in the state Group 4 meet with a 180’10 mark. He ended the spring by placing seventh in the Meet of Champions with a throw of 184’10.

“This is Ben’s first year throwing javelin and I think he has PR’s every meet since April,” said PHS track boys’ and girls’ associate head coach Ben Samara, whose squad placed first in the county, sectional, and group meets.

“It is just going up three or four feet every single time ,and now he is at an elite level in the javelin. To finish third in Group 4 as a first-year thrower is something he should be really proud of. It is him realizing his own potential and really putting the work in.”

For stepping in and and making key contributions in championship campaigns for their teams, Craven and Kioko are the top male newcomers.

In her first two seasons with the Princeton High girls’ lacrosse program, Grace Reardon toiled in the field for the junior varsity squad.

But with the void left by the graduation of star goalie Zoe Tesone, the PHS coaching staff decided to try junior Reardon, who also plays ice hockey, between the pipes this spring.

“Grace was just a mentally tough player who we thought would fit this role well,” said PHS head coach Sara Doran. “She checked a lot of the boxes. She was an athlete who had experience in another sport. She had good reflexes and strong mental capabilities.”

Although Reardon took her lumps in the early going as PHS started 1-5, she got stronger and stinger as the spring went on.

“In looking over the course of the season, she really grew and that helped the team tremendously too,” added Doran. “We have just seen her improvement.”

That improvement was on display as Reardon made a point-blank save in the waning moments of the Group 3 Central Jersey sectional final to help PHS pull out a 9-8 win over Rancocas Valley.

“For her to have the game- winning save is very sweet because she has been working really hard,” said Doran of Reardon who had five saves in that contest and ended up with 111 stops on the season.

“Grace is a very tough mental player. She doesn’t let situations get to her and that is proven by what she did at the end. A lot of goalies would be freaked out by that. She is very tough mentally and she pulled through for us there.”

Reardon’s courageous play and steady improvement in moving to a new position on the way to helping PHS earn a sectional crown makes her the top female newcomer.

Top Coaches

Having decided to step down from his role as the head coach of the Princeton Day School boys’ lacrosse team at the end of the 2018 season, Rich D’Andrea was not looking for the easy way out in his final campaign at the helm.

PDS added several high-powered foes to its schedule and moved up to the Prep A tournament after winning two straight Prep B crowns.

The Panthers showed they were up to the challenge, posting wins over Lawrenceville, Springside-Chestnut Hill (Pa.), Hill School (Pa.), and Pingry along the way.

“We have good core values that we hold true to and I think we have a really good sense of who we are,” said D’Andrea, in describing the mentality around the program.

After the Panthers suffered an 8-4 loss to Lawrenceville in the state Prep A semis, they stayed true to their values, going on a dominant run through the Mercer County Tournament, topping Hopewell Valley 9-2 in the quarterfinals, defeating Robbinsville 14-4 in the semis, and then knocking off top-seeded Hightstown 9-3 in the title game in D’Andrea’s finale.

Afterward, an emotional head coach D’Andrea reflected on a memorable PDS tenure with the raucous postgame celebration swirling around him

“I have been here for five, six years and this has been really special for me to see these seniors grow into who they are,” said D’Andrea.

“You look at the bottom of our shirts and it says ‘together.’ This is a really, really tight group. I have been fortunate to play and coach at a number of levels and the PDS experience has been right at the top of the list. This has been a special group and special families together; they are very, very tight.”

For D’Andrea, it was special to end his time guiding the Panthers with a third straight county crown.

“I think it is a great opportunity for us to come in the end of the year,” said D’Andrea, whose team posted a 10-5 record this spring.

“We were really excited for the challenge and played a couple of nice games at the end here. I have loved being part of this program. I consider all of the players as family; my kids have grown up around this family.”

For playing a major role in creating that family atmosphere and helping the Panthers rise to the occasion in his final campaign at the helm, D’Andrea is the pick as the top coach of a male team.

Len Klepack knows that he has to exercise patience in coaching the Stuart Country Day School track team.

“We don’t push points during dual meets; we try to teach them how to improve and just enjoy the sport,” said Klepack, who faces the added challenge of training his athletes at a school that doesn’t have a track on its campus.

“It is not like we are WW/P-South or Princeton, where their coaches say you have a chance to win the county, you have a chance to win a conference. This is new to them; some of them don’t completely understand scoring.”

Displaying their improvement, the Tartans piled up a lot of points in the state Prep B championship meet in May, totaling 115.50, highlighted by senior star Michelle Kwafo winning the 100 meter dash, the 200, and the 100 hurdles with classmate Allison Walsh taking first in the high jump and the 4×400 relay ending the meet with a win and a school record.

But despite all the stellar performances, Stuart left the track at Newark Academy that day with a bittersweet feeling as it finished in second, one point behind Villa Walsh and its total of 116.50. 

However in a case of better late than never, in the wake of an appeal, Stuart was declared as co-champions.

“The feeling is that we were deserving; they were, in our estimation, the best group of athletes that the school has assembled for that one sport,” said Klepack, who guided the Tartans to the Prep B indoor title this past winter as the program won both track titles in the same school year for the first time ever.

“It is deserving because of the hard work and the time they have put into it and the results. They won it, in my mind, on the field.”

In Klepack’s views, his athletes are winners on and off the track.

“It says how hard these young ladies have worked to balance athletics and academics,” said Klepack. “We have been teaching them about how to prioritize time management, dedication, and focus.”

Klepack’s dedication in helping the Stuart girls come through with a Prep B title this spring makes him the choice as the top coach of a female team.