SHOOTING STAR: Hun School boys’ lacrosse star Chris Donovan heads to goal in a game this spring. Post-graduate and Georgetown-bound Donovan scored 105 points on 56 goals and 49 assists to help Hun got 19-1 and win its first state Prep A title since 1998. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Arriving at the Hun School as a post-graduate and boarding student this past fall, Chris Donovan quickly developed a comfort level with his new surroundings.
The lacrosse star forged bonds with new teammates and fellow post-grads Brendan Rooney and Chris Aslanian as they were in the same boat, moving to the school and living in the dorm.
“Half of the team boards and we are up with each other until 1 in the morning talking about lacrosse and the state championship before going to bed,” said the Georgetown-bound Donovan, who hails from Morristown. “Aslanian is my roommate, we talk about lacrosse all the time.”
It didn’t take long for the attack unit of Donovan, Rooney, and Aslanian to become the talk of local lacrosse circles as highly touted Hun posted wins over Don Bosco, Somerville, and national power IMG Academy (Fla.) in its three games.
The 6’0, 175-pound Donovan, for his part, served notice that he was going to be a force, tallying eight points on three goals and five assists in the 16-5 opening day win over Don Bosco.
As the season went on, Donovan and Hun kept rolling, going 15-0 in regular season play, highlighted by victories over perennial state Prep A champion Lawrenceville, St. Augustine, Episcopal (Pa.), Shawnee, Bergen Catholic, and Hill (Pa).
In the process, Hun gained national attention, climbing to the top 10 in the Under Armour Power Rankings and the Lax Power computer rankings.
“Chris, Rooney, and me had a great connection,” said Donovan, who had five goals against Lawrenceville, a goal and three assists against St Augustine, six goals and an assist against Episcopal, six goals and four assists versus Bergen Catholic, and two goals and four assists in the Shawnee win.
“We stay after practice everyday, catching passes. Rooney has taught me a lot of things I will never forget, like behind the back shots.”
Competing in the state Prep A tournament and the Inter-Ac Challenge after the season, Hun did a lot of good things with Donovan triggering the attack. In a 19-4 win over Peddie in the Prep A semifinals, Donovan chipped in two goals and two assists. As for the Inter-Ac Challenge, Donovan had three goals and three assists to help Hun beat Academy of New Church 13-4 in the quarters and then contributed two goals and four assist as Hun topped Episcopal 9-4 in a rematch of their regular season contest.
Donovan was at his best when the titles were on the line. Against top-ranked and undefeated Haverford School (Pa.) in the Inter-Ac final, Donovan distinguished himself in a losing cause, tallying six points on two goals and four assist as Hun fell 15-8.
Coming into the Prep A title game three days later against 13-time champion Lawrenceville, Donovan and his teammates were determined to end the season on a high note.
“Bouncing back from Monday night was very tough,” said Donovan. “We gave it our all against the No. 1 team in the nation, they played incredibly. We knew we had to come out hard, we knew we were going to be tired. This got pushed back because of that. We are just hungry and humble, that is our motto this year.”
Showing his hunger to score, Donovan fired in a game-high four goals and added an assist as Hun rolled to a 14-6 win over the Big Red to earn its first Prep A crown since 1998.
In helping the Raiders go 19-1 and finish No. 4 in the Under Armour poll and sixth in the Lax Power rankings, Donovan led the team with 105 points on 56 goals and 49 assists. He scored at least two points in every game he played, and he scored three or more goals 11 times.
After the win over Lawrenceville in the Prep A title game, Hun head coach MV Whitlow put into perspective what Donovan’s presence this year meant for the Raiders.
“Chris is an inspiring player; his performance Monday night against Haverford was truly an inspiring performance,” said Whitlow.
“They were shutting him off today so I put him in the midfield to let him be the athlete that he is and he had four goals. He is truly a generational player, no doubt about it. We are very fortunate to have had him here because he is such a good young man from a great family.”
For making such a great impact as he helped Hun to its best season in a generation, Donovan is the choice as the Town Topics’ top male performer of the spring season.
Top Female Performer
This year’s senior class on the Princeton High girls’ lacrosse team has gone through a lot.
During the last four years, the program has had three head coaches, been hit with some key injuries, and saw a star player leave the team in midseason this spring.
But amid the upheaval, Mira Shane has been a rock for the Class of 2015. Starting in goal from day-one as a freshman and never leaving her post, Shane provided dependability, a fiery competitive spirit, and skill.
As David Schlesinger took the helm of the program this spring, he quickly realized he had something special in Shane.
“I am incredibly fortunate to inherit a goalie like Mira Shane,” said Schlesinger.
“As great a goaltender as she is, she is a better person. She is one of our tri-captains.”
Shane’s leadership came in handy as the team hit a rough patch in the middle of the season, losing six in a row to fall to 5-10.
“We lost a lot of seniors from the year before, we needed to shape a new team, not building off what we had done,” said Shane.
“This season was about establishing a new foundation. I kept saying we need to grow up. It was about growing up and having the best head and heart to play lacrosse and be better people to see what a loving team can do.”
With Shane producing some incredible play in the cage, PHS showed that it could be a title contender. The fifth-seeded Little Tigers advanced to the Mercer County Tournament semifinals where they dropped a 5-4 heartbreaker to top-seeded and eventual champion Notre Dame with Shane making 16 saves in a losing cause.
“Mira is amazing; she is so athletic and so quick,” said Schlesinger, who consoled Shane afterward as the goalie slumped over in tears near the team huddle after giving her all physically and emotionally.
“Her understanding of the position has grown so much this year, the way she plays angles and now she is a step ahead of the shooters. She knows what she wants to give up. She is forcing the shooters to shoot where she wants them to shoot. She is an amazing leader, a great player.”
In the North Group 3 sectional, ninth-seeded PHS topped eighth-seeded Roxbury 13-9 in the opening round and then pulled off one of the upsets of the season as it stunned top-seeded Northern Highlands 7-4 in the quarters.
In Shane’s view, that win spoke volumes about the team’s character.
“I think it just showed the amount of heart we had,” added Shane. “We had faced a lot of adversity this year. It was an up and down season.”
While the season ended on a down note as PHS fell 9-8 in overtime to fourth-seeded Hopewell Valley in the sectional semis, Shane believed that the final record of 10-13 didn’t accurately reflect the kind of team that PHS developed into this spring.
“I was really proud of what we accomplished,” said Shane, who made 14 saves in the finale. “We may not have the killer record to reflect that but we grew as a team.”
Shane certainly accomplished a lot in her career making over 200 saves this spring and around 700 in her stellar career.
Shane’s intensity, skill, and leadership make her the pick as the top female performer this spring.
Earning the first singles spot on the Princeton High boys’ tennis team over two seniors was the first sign the freshman Noah Lilienthal was something special.
In describing Lilienthal’s game, PHS head coach Sarah Hibbert noted that he possessed a maturity on the court. “Noah is a very consistent player,” said Hibbert. “He is a seasoned tournament player. He is mostly a baseliner but has a good all around game.”
Lilienthal’s combination of skill and experience was on full display when he produced a breakout performance in the final day of the Mercer County Tournament in late April, overcoming a one-set deficit to upset top-seeded and defending champion Jerry Jiang 2-6, 6-1, 6-3 in the semis and then beating second-seeded Kabir Sarita of WW/P-S 6-3, 6-4 in the finals to earn the first singles crown.
The county title surprised even Lilienthal. “It was really exciting,” said Lilienthal, who was seeded third. “At first I couldn’t believe it, and that was the same with the last match. It is a win that will give me confidence but I am the same player I was yesterday and the same player I was the day before that. It just shows that I have been putting in the hard work and hopefully I can continue.”
Hibbert, though, believed all along that Lilienthal had such a performance in him.
“Noah is great, everyone today got to see his quality of tennis on display, his shotmaking, his feet, his footwork, his movement, all of that,” said Hibbert.
“The presence as a freshman to be able to take out last year’s champion in the semi and then take out another highly experienced, solid player in the finals back-to-back, he had an amazing day.”
Showing his presence, Lilienthal helped PHS win the Central Jersey Group 3 sectional title for the first time since 2008 and top Tenafly in the Group 3 semis before falling to perennial power Millburn in the state championship match.
Lilienthal, for his part, was thrilled to see PHS advance to the final.
“We have worked really hard to get to this spot, we all do it as a team,” said Lilienthal. “We all contribute. It shows that we have really good character and I was happy we could do it for Princeton.”
For making a huge contribution to that success, Lilienthal is the choice as the top male newcomer this spring.
Coming into this spring, it was clear that the Princeton Day School girls’ lacrosse team was undergoing a youth movement.
The Panthers’ roster featured 12 freshmen and and five sophomores with the only seniors being co-captain Morgan Foster and Kirsten Kuzmicz.
Looking ahead to the season, longtime head coach Jill Thomas believed that what her team lacked in experience, it could make up for with skill and enthusiasm.
“This team is a great group of girls who are fun to work with every day,” said Thomas. “There is lots of energy, potential, and talent. We will look to Morgan Foster and Kirsten Kuzmicz to lead this young team throughout the 2015 season.”
But from the outset, the young guns were on target for the Panthers. In the team’s season-opening 15-6 win over Sewickley Academy (Pa.), freshman Madison Mundenar tallied five points on three goals and two assists with freshman Kyra Hall adding three goals and sophomore Morgan Mills chipping in six goals.
Mundenar, for her part, kept up a torrid pace, scoring four goals with an assist in a 14-2 victory over WW/P-S and adding three more goals in an 18-7 win over Shipley (Pa.) as the Panthers jumped out to a 3-0 start.
While the Panthers suffered some growing pains in the middle of the season, going 4-4 after the sizzling start, Mundenar helped lead the way as the squad rolled to the state Prep B title.
The speedy, skilled attacker scored four goals as first-seeded PDS defeated eighth-seeded Morristown-Beard 18-9 in the Prep B quarterfinals and had two more in a 15-5 win over the Ranney School in the semis.
Saving her best for last, Mundenar contributed five goals and an assist as the Panthers defeated second-seeded Pennington 18-11 in the Prep B championship game. Her outburst in the finale gave Mundenar 54 points on the season with 40 goals and 14 assists as PDS went 11-6.
During the title celebration, Thomas tipped her hat to her freshman contingent.
“They are not freshmen any more,” said Thomas. “They have grown so much and that is pretty darn terrific.”
By growing into a star who helped PDS earn a state title, Mundenar is the choice as the top female newcomer.
In 2013, MV Whitlow took over a Hun School boys’ lacrosse program that wasn’t in great shape, coming off a disappointing 7-11 campaign the previous spring.
Whitlow righted the ship guiding the Raiders to an 11-6 record and an appearance in the state Prep A title game where they fell 17-6 to perennial power Lawrenceville. He continued to solidify that foundation as Hun went 13-7 in 2014, making another trip to the Prep A finals, creeping closer to Lawrenceville, losing 11-6.
As Whitlow looked ahead to this spring, he believed that his players were poised to take things to a higher level.
“I think the guys are very committed to the team success and not individual stuff,” said Whitlow.
“We have high character guys who care a lot for each other. A theme we have shared is to focus on the process, consistent winning comes from the process; not focusing on the outcome. We have ramped up the schedule and the guys are hungry and ready to take the next step.”
The Raiders displayed their hunger and skill as they rolled to a 15-0 regular season campaign, beating such formidable foes Don Bosco, national power IMG Academy (Fla.), perennial state Prep A champion Lawrenceville, St. Augustine, Episcopal (Pa.), Shawnee, Bergen Catholic, and Hill, (Pa.).
Hun’s prowess turned heads nationally as the team made the top 10 in the Under Armour Power Rankings and the Lax Power computer rankings.
In the postseason, the Raiders showed that they belonged among the nation’s elite. In the prestigious Inter-Ac Challenge, Hun advanced to the finals where they fell 15-8 to top-ranked and undefeated Haverford School (Pa.) in a hard-fought battle. Three days later, the Raiders put the crowning touch on a memorable campaign as they topped Lawrenceville 14-6 to snap its 13-year title streak and win its first Prep A crown since 1998.
In the wake of earning the Prep A crown, Whitlow lauded his team for its achievements and character.
“I really wanted these guys to have champions next to their name and they will have it now and we will hang a banner,” said Whitlow, whose team ended the spring with a 19-1 record, ranked fourth nationally by Under Armour and sixth by LaxPower.
“This team will live on at the school because they deserve that and they worked for it. The group really didn’t care about individual stuff, they were all about the team and the teammates. They really worked hard in the offseason and they were a truly selfless, high character group of young men.
Whitlow’s role in bringing the group together to produce a legendary season makes him the choice as the top coach of a male team this spring.
After serving as an assistant coach for the Princeton Day School girls’ lacrosse team for 15 years, Liz Cook was ready to take a break from high school lax.
Planning to limit her coaching to club programs, Cook stepped down from her PDS post at the end of the 2014 season.
But weeks later, she got the chance to take the helm of a struggling Hun girls’ program coming off a 1-11 season and decided she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“Hun is very much like PDS, there are a lot of similarities between the kids at both schools,” said Cook, a former three-sport star at PDS who went on to play field hockey, ice hockey, and lacrosse at Brown University.
“I knew some of the players from Garden State Elite. I knew they were struggling; it was a chance to really make a difference. It was a good fit.”
In looking to reverse Hun’s fortunes, Cook took an upbeat approach. “My philosophy for this year is to make everything positive,” said Cook.
“We have a team motto, ‘TNT’, meaning today, not tomorrow; do it now. Each girl picked a word that is special to them and they will focus on that in addition to the team.”
After getting off to a 1-3 start, Hun got on the right track rallying to a 14-13 overtime win against PDS, the eventual state Prep B champions.
In Cook’s view, that win reflected how the squad had come together.
“They believe in each other and stand by each other, they have a gift in that way,” said Cook.
“There isn’t any drama on our team and they take care of each other. They knew when we were down, we could come back and they believed. They kept saying we believe and that was what our motto, believe. Before we went to bed we had a group chat last night, we were saying goodnight, we believe, we believe.”
That self-belief led to a number of impressive wins over the course of the season as Hun topped Prep B finalist Pennington, Mercersburg (Pa.) and posted two victories over Stuart Country Day. A major highlight came in late April when the Raiders edged Blair 10-9 in the state A quarterfinals.
In reflecting on the season which saw the Raiders improve to 7-8, Cook said the team’s progress came down to focusing on daily effort.
“I told them the culture of losing is over; they see that they are able to attain anything they go after,” said Cook.
“I told them they needed to improve every day in practice and in every game and they did that. They always had the talent, they just needed some guidance.”
For providing the guidance that changed the culture around the Hun team and helped it improve dramatically, Cook is the pick as the top coach of a female team this spring.