May 5, 2021

Hun Boys’ Hoops Star Smith, PHS Girls’ Wrestler Ayres Get Nod as Town Topics’ Leading Winter Performers

FULL-COURT PRESENCE: Hun School boys’ basketball player Kelvin Smith, right, pressures a foe in a game this past winter. Senior guard/forward Smith’s contribution at both ends of the court helped Hun post an 8-2 record this season. Smith, who is headed to Yale where he is planning to play both football and basketball, averaged 11.8 points a game along with 5.9 rebounds, a team-high 4.0 assists, a team-high 1.2 blocks, and 1.2 steals. (Photo by Lexi Thomas)

By Bill Alden

Kelvin Smith enjoyed a big season on both sides of the ball this past fall for the Hun School football team, utilizing his strength and speed to stand out at wide receiver and linebacker.

Moving to the basketball court this winter from the gridiron, Smith drew on his football experience in looking to make an impact for the Hun boys’ hoops team.

“Football has definitely helped my cutting in basketball,” said senior guard/forward Smith, a powerfully-built 6’4, 220-pounder, who has committed to attend Yale University and is planning to play both football and basketball for the Bulldogs.

“When I cut now, I am really good at faking out defenders and not letting them know which way I am going. It feels like running a route. Physical-wise, I feel like nobody on the court is too big to stop me. After playing football, the aggressiveness and tenacity I have is very different from everybody else. It helps me get to the basket easier. It definitely helps me in grabbing rebounds over people and getting loose balls.”

Playing at guard and forward for the Raiders, Smith displayed that tenacity, emerging as the squad’s top defender who could guard anyone from a guard to a center and as a jack-of-all-trades offensive catalyst.

Smith filled the stat sheet at both ends of the floor, averaging 11.8 points a game along with 5.9 rebounds, a team-high 4.0 assists, a team-high 1.2 blocks, and 1.2 steals in helping the Raiders post an impressive 8-2 final record.

When Smith hit the court this winter for the Raiders, he looked to do whatever the team needed at the time.

“As a senior captain, I feel like my role is to be a leader for the team,” said Smith.

“Sometimes we get rushed a little bit so I feel like it’s my job to keep the team under control and to find the open man when somebody is open and to take the open shot when I am open. It is a little bit of everything. I feel like if we need a basket, I can use a screen and get to the basket. If we need a jump shot, I can pass to one of my teammates or take a shot if I see it.”

Hun head coach Jon Stone credited Smith’s unselfish mentality as setting a positive tone for the Raiders.

“Kelvin’s leadership has been really good all year long,” said Stone.

“He is just so versatile for us. We play him on the ball a lot and yet we play him off the ball. He is such a good defender, he just gives us incredible versatility. He has been playing really well. He is a stat sheet stuffer. He just tends to have high numbers in points, rebounds, blocks, and assists every night. He has taken charges and different things like that. He is not always our leading scorer but he recognizes that there is so much more value to him. He gives us so much in every category.”

Looking ahead, Smith is striving to bring that versatility to Ivy League competition.

“I was offered for football and then the basketball coach at Yale [James Jones] who used to coach my dad in high school called me up,” recalled Smith.

“If you want to play basketball, you can have that here also. My final three was Cornell for basketball, Harvard for football, and then Yale for football. It was an easy but hard choice. I didn’t know that I had the chance to play basketball at Yale and so when he called me, that helped me make my decision.”

For bringing a rugged athleticism and an unselfish mentality that helped Hun produce a superb campaign, Smith is the choice for the Town Topics’ top male performer of the winter season.

TRIPLE CROWN: Princeton High senior wrestling star Chloe Ayres enjoys the moment after she won the 114-pound New Jersey state girls’ wrestling title on April 10 at Phillipsburg High, joined by New Jersey State Inter-scholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) representatives Howie O’Neal and Colleen Maguire. It was the third straight state crown for Ayres, who is headed to Princeton University this fall where she is looking to get a women’s club wrestling program off the ground.(Photo provided by Chloe Ayres)

Top Female Performer

When Chloe Ayres joined the Princeton High wrestling team as a freshman for the 2017-18 season, she wasn’t sure how things would go as one of only two girls in the program.

Ayres, who had only taken up the sport as an eighth grader training with her father Chris Ayres, the head coach of the Princeton
University wrestling program, quickly carved out a niche on the squad holding her own as she battled boys on the mat.

As Ayres was thriving on the mat, she also helped become a role model for girls looking to get in the sport. She appeared on the Today Show for a feature regarding the Wrestle Like a Girl program, founded by Sally Roberts, a World Bronze Medalist in women’s wrestling, to help girls and women across the United States get more opportunities to participate in wrestling.

In 2019, with a big push from her parents, New Jersey held its first-ever state girls wrestling championship and Ayres emerged as star, taking first at 105 pounds.

Last year, Ayres prevailed again, running the table at 107, edging Johnae Drumright of Trenton 4-3 in the final.

This winter, Ayres was looking to do more than just win a third straight state title.

“The goals for myself were a little bit different this year just because it is my third time going into it,” said Ayres.

“I really wanted to show what I could do. I’ve been putting a lot of time into the room even during COVID-19. I think this year my goal was a little bit bigger in that I wanted to show the level that I could wrestle on and showcase my technique that I’ve been working on. It was a little more technically focused than just getting the win. I also wanted to put on a show and make it interesting to watch and show that women’s wrestling has grown a lot in New Jersey.”

Ayres achieved her goal, pinning Cedar Creek’s Riley Lerner in the 114-pound state final to close her career unbeaten in state matches, ending up 26-0 against girls in her PHS career.

PHS head coach Jess Monzo credited Ayres with pushing herself to achieve a higher level on the mat.

“Chloe put the time in during the last year,” said Monzo. “She traveled to get matches and she made it a point to seek out the best competition across the country knowing at the next level, she’ll see some of those girls later on. It tested her to let her know where she’s at and what she needed to work on and improve on.”

In reflecting on her progress, Ayres rues the fact that she waited until middle school to take up wrestling.

“I really wish I had gotten into it sooner, but I didn’t really see it as an option for myself,” said Ayres.

“I think that’s part of the reason I’m so determined to show girls that it is an option so they get into it at a younger age and we continue to develop a higher level of wrestling for women. That’s definitely been an inspiration for me, seeing younger girls getting into it and seeing that this is their place and they can definitely compete in this sport and be successful. I didn’t necessarily see that when I was younger.”

This fall, Ayres will be heading to Princeton University and looking to carve out a greater role for women in college wrestling.

“While I probably won’t have the full Division 1 experience, I just want other girls to have the opportunity honestly,” said Ayres, who will join another woman, Demetra Yancopoulos, on the Tiger men’s roster with plans to compete in the national tournament for women through Princeton’s club program.

“Even if it happens a year after I graduate, I’ll be so excited because we’ve been fighting for it for a long time and I want to see girls have the ability to compete at the Division 1 level. Even if I’m not a part of that, I know I’ll have the ability to compete and train in the sport that I love in college anyway. I’m really hoping that opportunity will develop eventually for the little girls wondering if they’ll have that opportunity in college.”

Combining her role as a trailblazer in her sport with winning girls’ state titles in the first three years of the event, Ayres is the choice for the top female performer this winter.

DRIVEN TO SUCCEED: Princeton High girls’ basketball player Casey Serxner drives past a Hopewell Valley player in action this season. Freshman guard Serxner led PHS in scoring, assists, and steals as it went 7-3 this winter, a vast improvement on the 5-20 record posted in 2019-20. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Top Newcomers

Coming into the winter, Scott Bertoli realized that he had a gaping hole in the lineup for his Princeton Day School boys’ hockey team.

“The departure of four defensemen and the loss of senior defenseman Birch Gorman to a season-ending injury left us with a tremendous void on defense this winter,” said PDS head coach Bertoli.

Into that void stepped two freshmen, Han Shin and Connor Stratton. Showing a maturity and skill beyond their years, the pair emerged as stars along the blue line for the Panthers. With the talented freshmen anchoring the defense alone with junior star goalie Tim Miller, PDS surrendered just eight goals in six games this season as it went 4-1-1.

“Both Connor and Han quickly displayed the confidence, skating ability, and skill set to fill some of that gap this year,” said Bertoli, who got three assists from Shin this winter with Stratton contributing a goal and an assist.

“They took turns anchoring the point on our top power play unit, they both killed penalties and arguably played more minutes than anyone else on our roster.”

For filling a void and becoming stars in the process, Shin and Stratton are the choice as the co-top male newcomers.

Dave Kosa sensed that promising freshman Casey Serxner would make a special impact this winter for his Princeton High girls’ basketball team.

“She is going to be phenomenal, you saw her on the soccer field and how good she was,” said Kosa of Serxner, who was a key performer for the PHS girls’ soccer team in the fall.

“With her toughness, her aggressiveness, she has been great. We are really excited to have her. She will be our point guard this year.”

Kosa proved to be prescient as the gritty and talented Serxner emerged as the top player for the Tigers, triggering an uptempo offense to help PHS post a 7-3 record this winter, a vast improvement on the 5-20 make posted in 2019-20.

“Casey came on the scene to lead us in scoring, assists, and steals; she rarely turned the ball that much either,” said Kosa, noting that Serxner earned All-Colonial Valley Conference honors.

“I was talking to her and she thinks she could have played better. She hates coming off the floor even if she is in foul trouble. It is really great to have a point guard as competitive as she is. She is also very smart too. Her instincts are really good, some of the best I have seen. At half court in our diamond defense, she really adjusts well. She went sideline to sideline. There were times where she was anticipating passes and getting her steals that way. She really helped us.”

Serxner’s key role in reversing the fortunes of the PHS girls’ hoops team earns her the nod as the leading female newcomer.

Top Coaches

With the Princeton High boys’ swim team having only 13 guys on its roster for the 2021 campaign, Carly Misiewicz espoused an all hands on deck mentality to her athletes.

“I told them all that in the beginning of the season, guys we are hurting for numbers this year so don’t be surprised if you are going to be in different events week after week,” said Misiewicz.

“Having small numbers on the guys team stinks but the positive is that they are very versatile. A lot of the guys that we have can do a wide range of events. The other good thing too with only having one meet a week is that they are going to swim a lot of different events throughout the season.”

That approach resonated with the squad. “We really tried to utilize our versatility,” said Misiewicz.

“All of our guys can do almost anything people like Owen Tennant, Julian Velazquez, Dan Baytin, and Will Murray. Alex Shaw this year really surprised us, coming up in a lot of different events. It was not just the sprints, he did the 500 a couple of times for us and the butterfly even.”

The shorthanded squad went on to collectively surprise their coach, posting a 12-0 record in virtual meet competition, which entailed each team swimming separately at their pool and then sharing times online to calculate the score.

The team’s most exciting meet of the season came when the Tigers edged WW/P-North 86-84 despite winning just two of eight individual events (Tennant in the 200 individual merely and Henry Xu in the 100 breaststroke).

“I think the WW/P-North meet was a turning point, not so much like a wake-up call but telling us that we are pretty good this year,” said Misiewicz.

“The numbers may be low but we got seconds and thirds and did well in the relays. I remember scoring that meet out and I can’t believe it came out that way. I got to enter it on and it is like we didn’t win anything.”

In reflecting on achieving the perfect record, Misiewicz credited her swimmers with getting the most out of their potential.

“I was so happy for them, I am so proud of them,” said Misiewicz, who also coached the PHS girls’ squad, which featured more depth than the boys, to a 12-0 record this winter.

“It was look what we can do, with even just a small group of guys. We don’t need that number, you just need that drive and that determination. They have had it since the beginning.”

For helping to channel that drive and determination into an undefeated campaign, Misiewicz is the top coach of a male team this winter.

Coming into the winter, John Ritchie believed his Princeton Day School girls’ hockey team had a lot of potential.

“They are really excited, building off some of the enthusiasm from last year,” said PDS head coach Ritchie, who guided the Panthers to a 10-11 in 2019-20 in his debut campaign at the helm of the program.

“I think this team should finish well over .500. It should be one of the better years that PDS has had in a while. I am looking to really improve on that from last year.”

Ritchie’s confidence proved to be well-founded as the Panthers ended up going 5-0-1.

While Ritchie was proud of his team’s undefeated season, he was disappointed that COVID concerns and inclement weather led to the cancellation of scheduled clashes against some of the elite teams in the state.

“We will take it, we finished it on a good note for the seniors by not losing,” said Ritchie, whose team skated to a 2-2 tie against Trinity Hall in its season finale on February 22.

“It is one of those situations where you don’t have much control. I would have loved to play some of those other teams. We scrimmaged Summit but we didn’t get to play them in a real game. We didn’t get to play Mo-Beard, we didn’t get to play Pingry. We count those teams as the top of the state and they showed that again this year.”

The PDS players, for their part, showed a lot of character and skill in going undefeated.

“They did a great job all year,” said Ritchie, whose team outscored its foes 35-8 in a season highlighted by wins over Oak Knoll, Chatham, and Westfield.

“They were grateful for the season, they stayed together. They never complained once about wearing masks. They never complained about not having a locker room. They never complained about not having a lot of games. I could not have, and our coaching staff could not have, asked for any more from the girls. The maturity level of them for high schoolers is probably a lot better than I would have been.”

With the team only losing four seniors to graduation, Ritchie feels the program can build on this winter’s success.

“We are really high on the skill level of the younger players, I definitely think we have the capabilities,” said Ritchie.

“Once the talent level is there and the numbers are there, then it is up to us as coaches to make sure that we put that all together. I think we have the capability to be at the top of the state but it will be a good challenge for us.”   

Ritchie’s role in keeping things together through a challenging winter as the Panthers went undefeated makes him the top coach of a female team.