PERFECT ENDING: Princeton High boys’ swimming star Derek Colaizzo displays his freestyle form. The senior sprinting star helped PHS to an undefeated season which saw the Little Tigers win their second straight county crown and first state Public B title. Colaizzo was named the Most Valuable Swimmer on the boys’ side at the county meet. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Derek Colaizzo and his fellow seniors on the Princeton High boys’ swimming team knew that they had the opportunity to accomplish some special things this winter.
After winning the county title as juniors and going on to narrowly lose 90-80 to Scotch Plains-Fanwood in the Public B state championship meet, the PHS seniors were looking to take that final step.
“We want to go after it; it is one of our only chances in a long time and who knows when this opportunity is going to come again,” said Colaizzo, reflecting on the team’s quest for a state title.
“We just got lucky with all of these great seniors. A lot of us have different interests but when we come together, we have a tight bond.”
There was no luck involved as sprinting star Colaizzo helped the Little Tigers roll to an undefeated regular season.
In the county meet, Colaizzo and PHS made a major statement as the Little Tigers won six of eight individual events and all three relays in cruising to their second straight county crown with 356 points, nearly doubling the 190 points accumulated by runner-up Notre Dame in the meet held at Lawrence High.
The Princeton University-bound Colaizzo won the 50 and 100 freestyle races and helped PHS to victories in the 200 medley relay and the 400 free relay and was named as the meet’s Most Valuable Swimmer on the boys’ side.
In Colaizzo’s view, the dominant performance was the product of seniors looking to go out on a high note.
“There is a core of six seniors and we just wanted to go after it and have this last meet be our best,” said Colaizzo, whose classmates on the squad included Victor Honore, Addison Hebert, Matt Kuhlik, Harun Filipovic, and Jacques Bazile.
“We looked at some of those records and we thought maybe we had a chance of being able to break some of those so we went after it that way too.”
For Colaizzo, winning the meet’s top individual honor was a breakthrough moment.
“I was kind of shooting for it; I was trying to win all my events and see what would happen,” said Colaizzo, who posted a time of 24.11 in winning the 50 free and then came back with a 53.26 effort in the 100 free to edge teammate Kuhlik by 0.20.
“It means so much. I think it was based on winning individual events and I was so close last year. I just got touched out in the butterfly and I won the 50. It really means a lot that I pulled through and I was able to come out on top in both events this year.”
Despite the team’s dominance in the county meet, Colaizzo knew the Little Tigers faced a major challenge as they pursued their ultimate goal of a state title.
“I think we have a very good chance but it is going to be tough,” said Colaizzo, who plans to walk on to the Princeton University men’s swim team.
“There are a lot of good teams out there. The teams we run into in the state semis and finals are really good. We got beaten so badly my freshman and sophomore years. Last year we just beat Haddonfield in the semis and just lost to Scotch Plains Fanwood.”
As it turned out, PHS cruised through the competition in the Public B tourney to earn a rematch with Scotch Plains in the state finals.
With Colaizzo setting the tone as he produced a blistering anchor leg to help PHS open the meet with a win in the 200 medley relay, the Little Tigers never looked back on the way to a 109-61 win and the program’s first state title. Colaizzo went on to win the 50 free, place second in the 100 free, and help the 400 free relay to victory.
In reflecting on the title, PHS head coach Greg Hand was thrilled with how Colaizzo and his classmates ended their careers.
“Certainly they did give their best when it was needed; I guess if you boil it down, that is the most important thing,” said Hand, whose swimmers set eight school records in the victory.
“The most surprising thing was just how fast they were today and so I am always going to remember that. Coaches are extremely lucky to get a team that came together like this over the last two years. There was a huge amount of good fortune just having a constellation of guys like this together at the same time.”
For shining brightly all winter long, Colaizzo is the choice as the Town Topics top male performer of the winter high school season.
Top Female Performer
Megan Ofner took a lot on her shoulders this season in her final campaign with the Princeton Day School girls’ hockey team.
As a two-time team captain and the team’s most skilled offensive player, Ofner was ready to do whatever the Panthers needed.
“I am just happy to help the team; my job is to do anything and everything I can for the team,” said Ofner. “We have a short bench so I try to do anything I can do to help them and encourage everyone.”
When the Panthers stumbled a bit at midseason, Ofner remained upbeat. “We definitely know our strengths and weaknesses better than we did in the beginning of the season,” asserted Ofner. “We are ready to act on them and continue on with a great season.”
Ofner acted on those words, scoring a team-high 32 points on 19 goals and 13 assists, earning second-team All-WIHLMA (Women’s Interscholastic Hockey League of the Mid-Atlantic) honors in the process.
She ended her PDS career with 124 points and realized her dream of playing at the next level, committing to play for the Sacred Heart women’s hockey team next winter.
Ofner’s impact was most evident in the final weekend of the season when the Panthers took part in the WIHLMA ‘B’ bracket tournament. The slick forward tallied a total of three goals and three assists as PDS topped host Shady Side Academy (Pa.) 4-3 and Portledge School (N.Y.) 4-2 on the way to winning the ‘B’ bracket for a second straight year.
Head coach Lorna Gifis Cook sensed that Ofner was going to end her PDS career with a bang.
“Megan had the two best games I saw her have this season,” said Cook, reflecting on the successful final weekend which left the Panthers with a final record of 10-7. “She was all over the ice in that first game; when we came in between the second and third periods you could see how much she wanted to win.
In Cook’s view, Ofner raised the bar for the Panthers throughout the winter. “Megan is a very serious hockey player; you can tell that the sport means a lot to her,” said Cook.
Ofner’s production and leadership make her the pick as the Town Topics top female performer.
When Scott Bertoli assessed his PDS boys’ hockey team coming into the season, he had the sense that freshman Ross Colton could make an immediate impact for the Panthers.
“Ross is a heck of a talent,” said Bertoli, whose program also welcomed Colton’s older brother, junior star Robert. “He is a Tier 1 player and will step right in and help us as a freshman.”
The younger Colton soon proved he could compete with the best, scoring a shorthanded goal in a thrilling 2-2 tie with Lawrenceville in mid-January and then adding a goal in a 4-1 win over eventual county champion Notre Dame.
Over the course of the winter, Colton kept producing, ending the season with 35 points on 23 goals and 12 assists. Colton’s precocious play was a major factor in PDS going 18-5-1 and posting wins over such formidable foes as the Hill School (Pa.), Portledge School (N.Y.), Malvern Prep, (Pa.) and Moses Brown (R.I.).
“Ross is arguably the most talented kid on the ice every time he suits up,” added Bertoli.
“He is just a dynamic offensive player. He is very adept at reading plays and creating scoring opportunities. All that being said from the offensive side, he kills penalties. He is very responsible defensively; he really has a good understanding of the game.”
For emerging as a key performer from the start of his career, Colton earns the nod as the top male newcomer this winter.
With the Hun School girls’ basketball team being led by a pair of senior guards in Ashley Ravelli and Jackie Mullen, freshman Erica Dwyer took a spot in the background for the Raiders.
But as the season went on, Dwyer gained confidence in her shot and became more and more of a factor for the Raiders.
She ended the winter with 27 3-pointers and was a key player for the Raiders as they advanced to the Mid-Atlantic Prep League (MAPL) semis and the state Prep A title game.
Hun head coach Bill Holup was proud of Dwyer’s progress this winter and sees a bright future for the sharp-shooting guard.
“Erica is a player that when she gets hot the opposition needs to watch out,” said Holup, noting that Dwyer ended up averaging five points and 1.5 assists a game this winter in helping the Raiders go 15-12.
“She hit five threes in a game against Peddie in the MAPL quarterfinals and had a number of other games where she made multiple threes. I think she learned a lot from Jackie and Ashley and she will continue to get better as next year she will be expected to take over in the backcourt as a primary scorer and ball handler.”
Dwyer’s development into a perimeter threat for Hun makes her the pick as the top female newcomer.
In the view of many, it was state championship or bust this winter for the Princeton High boys’ swimming team.
But showing the caution that comes with years of experience, PHS head coach Greg Hand wasn’t about to assume anything coming into the season.
“It would be absurd to talk right now about how good we can be,” said Hand, whose team went went 16-1 in 2010-11 and narrowly fell to Scotch Plains-Fanwood in the state Public B championship meet.
“We know that we have just about everybody back from a very good team. It is a matter of how we will compete.”
After going undefeated in regular season competition, the Little Tigers showed how good they can be as they dominated the county meet.
“I was impressed; everyone dug deep today,” said Hand, whose team won six of eight individual events at the meet and all three relays in taking their second straight county title.
“I had the sense that they really wanted to put together a strong meet overall and everybody wanted to contribute to that. Regardless of where guys were placing, I thought they raced with a lot of determination.”
That determination was evident as PHS rolled through the state Public B tournament, producing a performance for the ages in the championship meet as the Little Tigers routed defending champion Scotch Plains-Fanwood 109-61. PHS swimmers won nine of 11 events in the final and set eight school records in the process.
“They really did pull together as a unit over the last few weeks,” said Hand, whose team ended the winter with a 17-0 record.
“You could see it everyday, just the way the seniors were getting more involved with taking care of the younger guys. People were taking the idea seriously that if you were going to have a chance for the championship, we would all have to be on the same page.”
For being the steady force that got his swimmers on the same page, Hand is the top coach of a male team this winter.
Mika Ryan brought high hopes into the winter for her Princeton Day School girls’ basketball team.
With a core of three senior stars in Janie Smukler, Sarah Godwin, and Molly Rubin, the Panthers figured to be one of the top squads in the area and Ryan put together a tough schedule to challenge the veteran unit.
But by the second game of the winter, PDS was down to six players as Smukler suffered a season-ending knee injury with Godwin sidelined by an ongoing knee problem, and freshman Kirsten Kuzmicz getting felled by a badly sprained ankle.
“I have never experienced anything like this in my lifetime of coaching,” said Ryan, a sideline veteran whose career has included stints as an assistant at Virginia and Rider together with a 10-year run as the head coach of The College of New Jersey women’s program.
“It just seems that we can’t catch a break. This is as big a challenge as I have ever faced just because we have no bodies.”
As the winter went on, Ryan tried to make the best of the situation, even giving her team a nickname based on the World War II film drama, The Dirty Dozen.”
“We came up with a nickname, the ‘dirty half-dozen,’” said Ryan, who gave her players camo T-shirts bearing the nickname.
“We are trying to turn negatives into positives. They have been fighting and giving their all. They are giving a lot, showing resilience and resolve. They are working their way through this. High school sports isn’t all about wins and losses. I am hoping they will value this experience.”
The Panthers ended up giving Ryan one of the more rewarding experiences of her coaching career as they produced a Cinderella run to the Mercer County Tournament semifinals. The 12th-seeded Panthers upset fifth-seed WW/P-S 47-45 and No. 4 Ewing 42-39 to make it to the semis where they fell to top-seeded Hopewell Valley.
“It is hard for me to even talk about it; we have hung together all year through so many ups and downs,” said Ryan, reflecting on the late surge which left the Panthers with a 9-13 record.
“I just love being around them. They never give in, they never stop playing. We might play crappy sometimes but we play awfully hard. They have to be one of my all-time favorite teams. I go to practice and I leave feeling good. They are everything that is right about PDS. I mean that, they are so resilient.”
For holding her team together though the injury-decimated campaign, Ryan gets the nod as the top coach of a female team this winter.