March 27, 2019

PHS Wrestling Standouts Bobchin, Ayres Get Nod as Town Topics’ Top Winter Stars

ALEC THE GREAT: Princeton High senior wrestling star Alec Bobchin, top, battles a foe in a bout this season. Bobchin produced a memorable final campaign, placing fourth in the NJSIAA Championships at 138 pounds, winning his second straight Region crown, and fourth consecutive Mercer County Tournament title. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Alec Bobchin didn’t achieve the ultimate goal of winning a state championship in his senior season for the Princeton High wrestling team.

But what he did accomplish this winter marks him as one of the greatest, if not greatest, wrestlers to ever hit the mat for PHS.

Competing at 138 pounds, Bobchin won his fourth straight Mercer County Tournament title, won his second straight Region title, getting named as the Most Outstanding Wrester at the competition, and then culminated his season by heading to Atlantic City and taking fourth the NJSIAA Championships.

“I definitely felt like I could have wrestled and placed higher than I was seeded,” said Bobchin in reflecting ion his performance at the state tournament.

“I’m really happy with how I finished my wrestling career. I really can’t complain. I know I worked hard to get where I am and I deserve everything I got.”

Bobchin finished his career with a mark of 140-20, the second most wins in Mercer County history. He trails only Robbinsville’s Garrett Bilgrav by two, though Bobchin finished higher at states this year than Bilgrav, who was seventh at 170 pounds

Coming into this season, Bobchin was fueled by taking eighth place at the states in 2018.

“Last year’s trip definitely helped,” said Bobchin. “I learned a really valuable lesson last year and that was not to settle. Last year I took eighth place and I looked up at everyone else on the podium and I felt guilty. I wanted more out of it. It pushed to train harder.”

As a result, Bobchin put more time and effort into his preparation for this season than any before. He worked out twice a day, woke up early before school to work out, went to the gym whenever possible, went on hard four-mile training runs, all with the idea that he was working toward a spot on the state podium. The example the Bobchin set by his commitment to excellence will leave a void next year when he is not in the room.

“He’ll definitely be missed and it’s great that he helped put Princeton wrestling to the next level and on the map again and he wrestled well at states and every tournament he went to,” said PHS head coach Rashone Johnson.

In the view of Johnson, Bobchin took things to a level not seen for PHS wrestling since Ian Reddy’s run in the 1990s, which saw him take fourth in the states in 1993.

“He and Ian Reddy are twinning right now,” said Johnson. “Ian Reddy took 7/8th as a junior. They didn’t wrestle the 7/8 match. He took fourth as a senior. The difference is Alec won a lot more matches, but the match count was different. You couldn’t wrestle as many matches back then. Alec is a four-time county champion and we don’t know what Ian is because they never wrestled in counties. It’ll make for a good argument at our alumni barbecue.”

No matter who wins that argument, Bobchin brought a singular charisma to the Tigers.

“Alec also had the ‘it’ factor too,” said Johnson. “When he walked into the room, at tournaments or weigh-ins, you know he’s there. He has a presence about him. He helped bring that swagger to Princeton wrestling.”

Displaying that swagger, Bobchin rebounded from a loss to undefeated and top-seeded Joseph Aragona of Pope John in the state semis to earn the fourth place finish.

“After I lost the semifinal match, I knew I needed to prove to myself that I’m too good to not place this year, I’m too good to not place as high as I can this year,” said Bobchin.

“And after what happened last year, I can’t settle and I can’t slide all the way down to sixth from the semis, I need to wrestle back for third and give it everything I had. I only had two more matches after that and I needed to wrestle both of them as hard as I could.”

Going forward, Bobchin is looking keep wrestling hard as he heads to Rider University to join its Division I program.

“I’m definitely looking forward to being a part of the family over at Rider,” said Bobchin. “(Head coach John) Hangey and Nic (Bedelyon) have been family to me for years. I know if I train as hard as I can, I believe in them to get me to where I want to be and reach the goals I want to achieve.

But as he competes at the next level, Bobchin won’t soon forget his time at PHS, on and off the mat.

“It’s not even the wrestling part,” Bobchin said. “It’s the friends and the family and the bonds I’ve made with everybody from my teammates to my coaches.”

For being such a valuable member of the PHS wrestling family, Bobchin is the choice as the Town Topics’ top male performer of the high school winter season.

Top Female Performer

Chloe Ayres only took up wrestling three years ago, but she has already made history in the sport.

As a freshman wrestling for Princeton High in 2017-18, Ayres was the first girl to compete for the program and held her own against the male foes.

This winter, with New Jersey holding its first-ever state girls’ wrestling state tournament, Ayres emerged as a star.

At the South Jersey girls’ wrestling region tournament, Ayres won the 105-pound title and was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler (MOW) of the competition. She went went on to win the 105 title at the NJSIAA championships in Atlantic City

Ayres’ success this winter highlighted the influence her father, Chris Ayres, the head coach of the Princeton University wrestling team and a former standout for Lehigh, has had on her development in the sport.

“We have an amazing bond,” Ayres said. “I’ve been working for all these great goals. Every day he’s in my corner. He’s the first one I hugged after I won regions. We were both crying.”

For Ayres, just getting the chance to compete in the girls’ tourney was amazing.

“Going into the tournament, I was honestly just excited to be there,” said Ayres, whose parents and NJSIAA assistant director Bill Bruno played a key role in starting the girls’ competition.

“I didn’t ever expect to experience it in my high school career. I was content with whatever happens. To compete with just other girls, I’ve never experienced anything like it in high school.”

PHS head coach Rashone Johnson wasn’t surprised to see Ayres thrive under the pressure of state competition.

“She was tough,” said PHS head coach Rashone Johnson. “She went and she competed. She’s wrestled in plenty of other bigger tournaments than that before, but the nerves with it being the first state tournament in your own state and it’s for real, it’s a real qualifier for the state tournament, it was good. She handled herself well. She wrestled with poise, like she’s a veteran.”

Spending the last two seasons going against boys helped steel Ayres.

“Those varsity matches that she wrestled against boys, it all preps her for whatever she’s going to possibly run into at states,” said Johnson. “She’s wrestling boys throughout the year. She’s going to be prepared for whatever she runs into at the end of the year.”

Heading into Atlantic City after the success at the Regions, Ayres was prepared to come out on top.

“My dad always says, ‘Anyone, anywhere, anytime;’ I want to show what girls can do,” said Ayres, reflecting on her mindset heading into the state championships.

“I want to display what I’ve been working on, what I can do, and show my style. I want to go out and win the tournament and be dominant.”

In taking the state title, Ayres had to overcome some nerves. “It was very overwhelming,” said Ayres. “My first match, it was a little like a deer in headlights. It’s a lot to take in. The crowd was really into it, even the girls’ matches. It’s a lot to take it. Once I got in the later periods of my matches, I was able to let go. It was intimidating at first. It took a little to get used to.”

Building on her success, Ayres is hoping to use the attention she has drawn to get more girls into the sport.

“Hopefully next year we’ll have a few more,” Ayres said. “I’m trying to recruit a few of my friends. Manalapan and Kingsway have a full lineup of girls. Last year, that was non-existent and now they have a full team. That’s what we’re trying to have at Princeton.”

Making history in helping to put girls’ wrestling on the map and winning a first state title for PHS wrestling earns Ayres the nod as the top female performer this winter.

Top Newcomers

Last winter, Tim Evidente cut his teeth on the Princeton High boys’ basketball freshman team.

Despite standing under six feet, the wiry Evidente made a big impact as he moved up to PHS varsity squad this season and took over as starting point guard.

“I see my role as distributing the ball, running the plays and being like a coach on the floor,” said Evidente.

It didn’t take long for Evidente to get on the same page with his teammates.

“I am getting more comfortable with the guys,” said Evidente, who averaged 6.4 points a game and led PHS in assists (28) and steals (35). “We are blending a lot more on and off the court. We are showing it on the court as well.”

Evidente’s ability to get his teammates blend together helped PHS make a big jump this season as the Tigers went 12-13 and made the state tournament after going 4-21 in 2017-18.

PHS head coach Pat Noone credited Evidente with showing maturity on the court.

“Tim does a great job of controlling the offense,” said Noone. “He sees the court. He uses his dribble to create space so he will get in there. If he doesn’t like it, he pulls it back out and we get to run the offense.”

Evidente’s role in helping PHS enjoy a bounce-back season makes him the top male newcomer this winter.

Marie-Eve Hebert found a home as she came to the Hun School from Canada this year and joined its swimming program.

“I was visiting my brother here for the school and the hockey,” said Hebert, a native of Quebec whose older brother, Guillaume, starred for the Hun boys’ hockey team and graduated from the school last spring.

“The Hun campus was amazing to me. This is like Harry Potter, it is like a dream for me, so let’s try to swim here. I know that in the United States, swimming is very competitive. Everyone here has been friendly.”

Hebert proved her bona fides as a competitor, fighting through illness to star at the Mercer County Championships

The junior transfer placed first in both the 200 and 400 freestyle races to help upstart Hun win the team title, the first county crown in program history.

“This is the first thing we have won,” said Hebert.“This season has been great. We have won every other meet so winning, seeing our medals and the t-shirts and taking pictures was great.”

Hebert kept coming up with great efforts down the stretch of the season, taking third in the 200 free at the state Prep meet and advancing to the finals in the 100 and 200 free at the Eastern Interscholastic Swimming and Diving Championships.

Hun head coach Joan Nuse credited Hebert with making a big contribution to the team, in and out of the pool.

“Marie-Eve is great as a swimmer and is great as a person,” said Nuse. “She brings such a wonderful attitude with her and puts in a lot of effort everywhere she goes. Everyone on the team just loves her.”

For bringing so much to the Hun swimming team in her debut season, Hebert is the top female newcomer.

Top Coaches

Scott Bertoli knew that his Princeton Day School boys’ hockey team faced an uphill battle this winter.

“We graduated seven and we lost Cade McLaughlin, who went to Kent School,” said PDS head coach Bertoli as he looked ahead to the 2018-19 campaign.

“We are definitely not as deep as we have been in the past, especially last year. Our schedule was just brutal this year. It was hard with the lack of depth.”

Still, Bertoli was confident that his players would rise to the occasion.

“We have enough pieces to play some really good hockey and give ourselves opportunities to win games against some really good competition,” said Bertoli.

The Panthers did just that, posting victories over Gloucester Catholic, Portledge School (N.Y.), Hun, Vermont Academy(Vt.), Worcester Academy (Mass.), LaSalle (Pa) and Seton Hall Prep, among others, on the way to a 14-12-1 record. The Panthers placed in the top four of the highly competitive Mid-Atlantic Hockey League (MAHL) where they fell 4-1 to Hill School (Pa.) in the semis.

“When we were at full strength and had everyone there, I felt confident playing against anyone,” said Bertoli.

“I think we proved that with great games against Hill (a 1-0 loss in overtime on January 9) at relatively full strength and a really good effort against Lawrenceville (a 5-4 defeat on January 24) which proved to be an outstanding team this year by New England standards.”

In the final analysis, Bertoli credited his players with showing grit and character as they dealt with the challenges that came their way.

“One thing I never worry about is the effort level that we are going to get and the way the kids conduct themselves,” said Bertoli.

Bertoli’s ability to get the most of his players and guide the Panthers to another winning campaign makes him the pick as the top coach of a male team this winter.

Justin Leith set the bar high for his Stuart Country Day School basketball team coming into the 2018-19 campaign.

In order to steel his players for postseason play, he scheduled a gauntlet of formidable foes such as Trenton Catholic, Miami Country Dade (Fla.), St. Rose, Bound Brook, Christ the King (N.Y.), and Rise Academy (Canada).

Leith sensed that his squad had the talent to compete against the best. “I say to the kids every day that we have all of the pieces to be great,” said Leith.

“We have to stay healthy and we do not want to take our talent for granted. We want to go into practice every single day and work hard, work smart, and work together. That is what we have been driving home since the first practice – hard, smart, together.”

While the Tartans struggled in January, going 4-5, Leith believed his team was still making progress as it stuck together through the losses.

“We knew going into it that it was going to be difficult,” said Leith. “We were able get better even during our weakest moments and darkest times.”

Toughened up by that experience, Stuart enjoyed some great times when February rolled around. The second-seeded Tartans won their second straight state Prep B title, topping third-seeded Academy of St. Elizabeth 82-72 in the semis and then going on the road to post a 71-63 win over top-seeded Morristown-Beard in the final.

At the same time, Stuart produced a stirring run in the Mercer County Tournament as the third-seeded Tartans defeated sixth-seeded Trenton 69-43 in the quarterfinals before falling 54-44 to second-seeded Pennington in the semis to finish the winter with a 17-10 record.

In Leith’s view, Stuart’s postseason success reflected a more competitive mindset being exuded by Tartan athletes across the board.

“It is a testament to where Stuart is, not just as a basketball team but athletically,” said Leith, who is also the school’s Director of Athletics.

“You look at our track team, field hockey in the fall, and lacrosse is going to be a big-time eye opener to everyone. It is really a revival of Stuart athletics. Basketball is a part of that and the back-to-back piece is just awesome but there is certainly synergy among the teams. We are a small school and the coaches share a lot of athletes. The culture has changed; the expectations of work and winning has changed in a good way for everybody to be all in.”

For taking a key role in building a championship culture around the Stuart hoops program, Leith is the choice as the top coach of a female team.