STROKES OF BRILLIANCE: Princeton High girls’ tennis star Christina Rosca hits a backhand on the way to taking the title at first singles at the Mercer County Tournament. Sophomore Rosca went on to win the NJSIAA girls’ singles championship, earning the first state singles crown in program history.
Christina Rosca made quite a splash during the fall of 2012 in her freshman season on the Princeton High girls’ tennis team.
The precocious Rosca placed second at first singles in the Mercer County Tournament and advanced to the semifinals of the NJSIAA state singles competition. Along the way, she led PHS to the state Group III team championship match.
Rosca’s accomplishments during her debut campaign, though, were only a harbinger for things to come this fall.
In late September, Rosca rolled to the MCT first singles title without losing a set. In the championship match, Rosca posted a 6-1, 6-0 win over Claudia Siniakowicz of WW/P-S.
Rosca was thrilled to reach the top of the singles ladder in the county.
“Last year, I was a little disappointed that I lost but there was no shame in losing to Sam [former Princeton Day School star and current Wake Forest player Samantha Asch] because she was an exceptional player,” said Rosca. “I am definitely happy that I was able to play well and do it.”
Three weeks later, Rosca proved that she is exceptional in her own right as she rallied from a set down to defeat Fair Lawn’s Valerie Shklover 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the NJSIAA girls’ singles final to earn the first state singles crown in program history.
In reflecting on the win, Rosca attributed it to a more mature mentality on the court. “I think my mental state and attitude made a really big difference,” said Rosca, who had rallied after losing the first set in the semifinals to make the title match.
“That is something I have improved a lot on. A year ago or a half a year ago I think I would have lost those matches because I would have let my emotions get the better of me. Staying calm really helps. As time progressed, starting last year from the state tournament, I saw sometimes in matches, it is not a difference of strokes or technique but rather it is a difference of how you play the important points and your mental attitude.”
PHS head coach Sarah Hibbert lauded the skill and attitude that Rosca brought to the court.
“Chris has continued to work hard,” said Hibbert, whose team again advanced to the state Group III team championship match.
“She has really upped all aspects of her game. She can put a lot of pace on the ball but she does have other options to fall back on as well. She is a team player as well. She enjoys being out there, rooting for the other girls. She wins her matches and she doesn’t take off. Instead she goes around and sees who else is playing which is really nice.”
For rising to the top of both the county and state singles ladder and making history in the process, Rosca is the choice as the Town Topics’ top female performer this fall.
Top Male Performer
When the Willingboro High band accidentally left its banner on the field after performing at halftime of the Princeton High-Willingboro football game in mid-October, PHS star Liam Helstrom gathered it up and ran it over to the musicians.
That moment was emblematic of a fall during which senior receiver/linebacker Helstrom did everything for the Little Tigers.
The 6’2, 190-pound Helstrom stood out on both sides of the ball even as PHS struggled to an 0-10 campaign.
On offense, Helstrom, grabbed 50 receptions for 853 yards and seven touchdowns. He was equally dominating on defense, making 110 tackles with four forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.
While Helstrom was disappointed by the steady diet of losing this fall, he never lost his hunger to perform.
“I am out there to play football; it is my senior year,” said Helstrom. “Even when I am down, I am still busting hard.”
Things were made harder for Helstrom as he switched positions on both offense and defense, going from tight end to wide receiver and from defensive end to linebacker.
“Playing tight end taught me a lot about using my hands, plus going into the weight room and thinking about going up against these big 250-pound guys, I had to lift a lot more,” said Helstrom, noting that he bench presses 285 pounds.
“Now I am out here against 150-pound kids running track. I have what they call deceptive speed.”
Helstrom also utilized his power and speed on defense. “They moved me to linebacker,” said Helstrom.
“I always thought of myself as more of a defensive end. So there are holes and cutback lanes that I find. Sam [Smallzman] is telling me what to do; he is a real good linebacker.”
Helstrom produced some monster games as the losses piled up. In a 27-14 loss to WW/P-S, he made seven catches for 71 yards and a touchdown to go with 11 tackles and 2 forced fumbles. Helstrom exploded for eight receptions, 185 yards, and two touchdowns in a 57-14 loss to Trenton. Against Lawrence, he made six catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns. In his career finale in a 28-21 loss to Marlboro in an NJSIAA consolation contest, Helstrom ended on a high note with five catches for 149 yards and a touchdown.
PHS head coach Charlie Gallagher noted that Helstrom turned a lot of heads this fall.
“You look at a kid like Liam Helstrom, he is out here having fun, he is out here playing football,” said Gallagher.
“I keep getting complimented by the refs, saying my God, your guys are fighting. Liam is a great football player, he loves playing football.”
For providing such production and spirit in the face of a winless campaign, Helstrom gets the nod as the top male performer this fall.
Before Princeton Day School cross country coach Merrill Noden even met freshman runner Morgan Mills, he had the feeling she might be something special.
“Morgan Mills moved here from London,” said Noden “She ran for a school there, St Paul’s, and the Thames Valley Harriers. I knew that if she ran for Thames Valley, she must be good.”
Mills turned out to be very good this fall for the Panthers. With Mills asserting herself as the team’s top runner from day one, the Panthers posted dual meet wins over Pennington, Hun, Stuart, Rutgers Prep, and Hamilton and placed eighth in the Varsity E girls’ race at the Shore Coaches Invitational. Mills placed 18th in the Shore meet, clocking a time of 21:55 on the 3.1 mile course at Holmdel.
Mills then placed 35th in the Mercer County Championships with a time of 20:59 to help the Panthers take ninth in the team standings. The precocious Mills ended the fall by placing 10th in the individual standings at the state Prep B championship meet, posting a time of 20:40.50 over the 3.1 mile course at Blair as PDS took third overall.
“She is very competitive; she does most of her training with our boy runners,” said Noden of Mills. “She is also a very good competitive swimmer.”
For utilizing that competitiveness to get PDS on the right track, Mills is the pick as the top female newcomer this fall.
As he took the helm of the Princeton High boys’ cross country program this fall, Mark Shelley exercised caution with his freshman runners.
“I am really focused on daily development,” said Shelley. “We really, really try for a developmental approach: we try to not put pressure on the runners.”
One of Shelley’s freshmen, Alex Roth, though, proved to be up to the pressure of running near the front of the varsity pack.
Roth took 18th in the Varsity C race at the Shore Coaches Invitational held in Holmdel in a time of 17:37 in early October as PHS placed third in the team standings. He took 16th with a time of 17:11 in the Group III Central Jersey sectional meet to help the Little Tigers place second. Roth ended the season by finishing 51st at the state Group III in 17:16 as PHS took 11th overall.
“Alex has taken off tremendously, he has been in the low 17s,” said Shelley.
“He is so unflappable. He works hard and doesn’t seem to get too excited. We have been careful with his mileage and training.”
Roth’s instant impact for PHS makes him the choice as the top male newcomer.
For the Princeton Day School girls’ soccer program, the 2012 season proved to be a nightmare.
Hampered by injuries and internal dissension, the Panthers slipped to a disappointing 4-9-4 record.
As a result, PDS head coach Pat Trombetta concentrated on getting the players on the same page.
“The team chemistry is excellent this year; that is due a lot to our leadership from the captains and the upperclassmen,” said Trombetta.
“Overall we have a strong upperclassmen group and they know with nine freshmen on the squad, they are taking them under their wings and being very good mentors and so forth. I like the way the girls are working together. It is a very close-knit group.”
As PDS got off to a sizzling 11-0-1 start, senior co-captain Britt Murray attributed the turnaround to team unity as much as skill.
“I think last year, our chemistry was not there,” said Murray. “We have tried to do a lot of team bonding; we are all just on the same page I think. On the field we always want to work for each other and not individually. No one is fighting or arguing; we just want to be like one team.”
Playing together, PDS proceeded to produce a dream run in postseason action. Getting seeded first in both the Mercer County Tournament and state Prep B tourney, PDS lived up to its billing.
In the MCT, the Panthers survived a scare in the first round, topping 16th-seeded Hamilton 3-2 in overtime. PDS gathered momentum from there, topping ninth-seeded Robbinsville 3-0 in the quarters and then rallying for a 2-1 win over fourth-seed Princeton High in the semis to earn a shot at second-seeded Hopewell Valley in the title contest.
Before an overflow crowd at Rider University on hand for the championship contest, PDS broke open a scoreless nailbiter with two late goals to earn a 2-0 victory and the program’s first-ever county crown.
“This is for all the teams out there, the small schools that nobody looks at,” said Trombetta, during the raucous on-field celebration after the title game.
“The girls that might not be academy-type players but if you have a bunch of girls who have great team chemistry, it goes a long way. They have got so much heart and determination.”
In the Prep B tournament, PDS topped Rutgers Prep 3-0 in the semis. Facing Morristown-Bread less than 24 hours after their MCT triumph, PDS ran out of gas and just missed a title double as they fell 2-0 to the Crimson.
While Trombetta was disappointed by that result, the pluses far outweighed the minuses.
“We couldn’t be more proud of the performance of these girls and the team as a whole and the way they stuck together,” said Trombetta, whose squad posted a final record of 17-2-1.
“I told the seniors, regardless of how this stings, what you did this year, no other PDS team did. I am very happy for the seniors to go out this way.”
For getting his players on the same page and guiding them to a reversal of fortune that resulted in a championship campaign, Trombetta is the choice as top coach of a female team this fall.
Even after the Hun School boys’ soccer team fell 3-2 to Pennington in late September to fall to 1-4, Pat Quirk saw cause for optimism.
“I thought we played extremely well; it was a well-played game of soccer,” said Hun head coach Quirk.
“We did what we have been preaching to them which was to get creative around the goal and not just trying to settle on long balls. This is a team that is never going to give up and that stems from the seniors in the middle, Felix [Dalstein] and Bailey [Hammer].”
As Quirk left the field that day, he asserted his belief that Hun had the potential to do some damage in the Mercer County Tournament.
When the MCT rolled around in late October, not many shared Quirk’s view as his team was seeded 11th.
Getting matched in the opening round against No. 6 Princeton High, the defending Group III state co-champion and a perennial MCT finalist, it looked like the Raiders were headed for an early exit. But showing its grit, Hun prevailed 1-0 in overtime on a goal by Alex Semler.
In the quarters, the Cinderella ride continued as Hun edged third-seeded and eventual 2013 Group III state co-champion Allentown 2-1 in overtime on goals by Patrick Nally and Felix Dalstein.
Facing second-seeded Hightstown in the MCT semis, Hun was in position for another upset as the game was knotted in a scoreless tie at halftime. But the Rams were able to score two late goals and the Raiders’ valiant run ended with a 2-0 defeat.
“We couldn’t finish but we never gave up and that’s been the story of this team all season,” said Quirk, whose team ended the fall with a 7-12 record.
“I had a good feeling coming into the tournament. We started playing well together. We started making some combinations and we had that whole never give up thing. The first two games in the tournament we won in overtime. No one really expected us to do anything and we were able to prove some people wrong.”
Quirk’s role in driving his team to exceed expectations makes him the top coach of a male team.