After the Princeton High football team pulled out a dramatic 27-21 win over Northern Burlington last Saturday in the season opener, PHS quarterback Zack DiGregorio made a beeline for his father on the sideline.
The senior star and his dad, Steve, a former Princeton University assistant coach and Nutley High head coach who is helping guide the Little Tigers this fall, embraced each other in an extended bear hug with grins plastered to their faces.
For the younger DiGregorio, it was a highlight moment he will remember for a long time.
“My dad is on the sideline now and that is huge for me,” said DiGregorio. “Hugging him like that was one of the coolest things I have experienced.”
DiGregorio showed his experience in the victory over the Greyhounds, coolly running the PHS offense, hitting four of nine passes for 73 yards and two touchdowns.
The Little Tigers kept their composure collectively, battling back from deficits of 7-0, 14-6, and 21-14 in rallying for the win.
In the third quarter, PHS marched 40 yards on a drive that culminated with a 15-yard touchdown pass from DiGregorio to Will Xu to tie the game at 21-21.
After Jack Persico recovered Northern Burlington fumble late in the third quarter, DiGregorio engineered a 41-yard march that ended with a 31-yard touchdown gallop by Javon Pannell which put PHS ahead to stay at 27-21.
A key to the PHS win was its superb running game, featuring Pannell (10 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown), Ben Smallzman (7 carries for 108 yards), and Will Harrison (23 carries for 71 yards and a touchdown).
DiGregorio, for his part, thought that offensive balance would be a strength this fall for the Little Tigers.
“As we were coming through camp this year, we saw that we could really spread the ball around a little bit,” said DiGregorio. “Last year we had Eric [Shorter] but this year we didn’t have an offensive force. I feel like we have a lot of pieces we can use equally. It makes us pretty hard to defend.”
In order to make himself tougher to defend, DiGregorio put in extra time in the weight room and got tutored by a legendary former New York Giants quarterback.
“I also had the opportunity to work with Phil Simms up in northern Jersey,” said DiGregorio.
“He knows his stuff, we worked on fundamentals and just being more efficient with my delivery and getting more out of my body than I was getting. It was a huge, huge improvement; that is something I worked really hard on this summer.”
In the win over Northern Burlington, the Little Tigers benefited from a huge effort in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
“We have a bunch of really resilient guys,” said DiGregorio. “I am not the one you should be talking to, it’s the guys up front. They stuck their necks out for everybody; you can’t play harder than they played today. The defense was bearing down when it needed to; it made my job really easy.”
In trying to master the job of quarterback, DiGregorio has learned a lot form his predecessors.
“I have had great role models here as quarterbacks,” said DiGregorio. “From Mike Olentine, who was great in what he did. We still talk. Alex Mitko and I are still really, really good friends. I have learned so much from them.”
PHS head coach Joe Gargione credited DiGregorio with making some great improvements.
“Zack stepped up big time today,” said Gargione. “We didn’t throw the ball that much because the run game was working so well today and we stuck with what worked. When he did throw the ball, he just had confidence. His arm strength has improved so much as has his footwork.”
Gargione liked the strength of character that his players showed as they kept battling back.
“I told the team no matter how tired you are, you dig a little deeper because you are not as tired as you think you are,” said Gargione.
“I think the biggest thing about today is that we didn’t let down. Even when they beat us twice on the long ball, we bounced back. I am so proud of them today.”
The win sparked some déjà vu for Gargione as the Little Tigers started last season by edging Northern Burlington 20-14.
“We knew that the two main reasons we beat them last year were turnover margin and I believe we were more in shape than they were,” said Gargione, whose team won the turnover battle again, recovering two fumbles and making two interceptions without committing any miscues.
“Today it seemed similar in the regard that they were hanging their heads a lot. I said to our guys take a look at them, they are hunched over. It is a key that they are tired and we need to feed off of that.”
The Little Tigers also fed off their togetherness in overcoming the Greyhounds.
“That’s the thing I have been stressing to these guys, we don’t have strength in numbers, we have strength when we all play together as one,” said Gargione.
”You may never come off the field other than for a blow or two. You get a drink of water and then you have to get back on the field. You have to play ironman football here. The line on both sides of the ball played awesome today”
In Gargione’s view, the Little Tigers can build on its encouraging performance.
“It is obviously good momentum going into the game Friday night at Hightstown,” said Gargione. “Beating a team like Northern Burlington at home to start off was awesome. That was huge.”
DiGregorio, for his part, believes that PHS has what it takes to beat a lot of teams this fall.
“This is huge momentum, especially with way we played this game so emotionally,” asserted DiGregorio.
“We know what we are capable of and it is even more than this. Good things are in the future, I am feeling it.”