December 8, 2021

PHS Girls’ Soccer Star Lis, Hun Football’s Lainez Get the Nod as Town Topics Leading Fall Performers

DREAM SEASON: Princeton High girls’ soccer star Sophia Lis displays her skills in a game this fall. Senior striker Lis made history in her final PHS campaign, scoring 38 goals, giving her the second highest single-season total in CVC history behind the 65 scored by Steinert’s Lisa Gmitter in 1982. The heroics of Lehigh-bound Lis helped Princeton go 21-3 and advance to the state Group 3 final for the first time in program history. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Sophia Lis didn’t want her final season on the Princeton High girls’ soccer team to end.

“I want to stay on this team for as long as possible,” said senior star striker and Lehigh-bound Lis. “It has been so great, it has been such a fun year.”

A great team chemistry helped make the team so fun. “We have really been working in practices a lot,” said Lis.

“I feel like we have the chemistry off the field, that is really showing on the field. We have done so many dinners. Everyone is such great friends, we all want each other to score.”

While PHS boasted good scoring balance, Lis emerged at the go-to finisher for the team, tallying 11 goals and six assists in the first seven games of the seasons as the Tigers got off to a 7-0 start.

“I am definitely trying to work on my shot accuracy but also with me getting more shots, I want to make sure that my team does the same,” said Lis.

“We work well as a unit to make sure to get the final product no matter what.”

Lis kept burying shots as PHS worked really well as a unit, going 13-1 in regular season play and then advancing to the Mercer County Tournament semifinals where it fell for a second time to rival Hopewell Valley.

Moving on to the state tournament, Lis took her game to new heights, tallying two goals in a 6-0 win over WW/P-North in the opening round of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Central Jersey Group 3 sectional. In the quarterfinals, she tallied the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Robbinsville and then got two goals in a 3-1 win over Colts Neck in the semis. In round three with HoVal in the sectional final, Lis tallied both goals in a sweet 2-0 triumph.

In state Group 3 semis at Lacey High, Lis scored one of her most dramatic goals of the season, chipping the ball over the Lacey goalie into the net in overtime to give PHS a 1-0 win and its first-ever trip to the state Group 3 final.

“I won the ball and I just turned and dribbled down the sideline,” said Lis, recalling the winning tally.

“I have been finding this whole season, I have been doing a lot of sideline work. So, using my speed, I just ran to the corner and took a shot to see if maybe a rebound could be found or it could find the back of the net. I was fortunate that this time, it did.”

In the state final against Wayne Valley, Lis scored a first half tally as PHS battled back from an early 1-0 deficit only to fall 2-1 in overtime. That goal was the 38th of the fall for Lis,
giving her the second highest single-season total in CVC history behind the 65 scored by Steinert’s Lisa Gmitter in 1982.

PHS head coach Dave Kosa noted that the brilliance of Lis this fall has been the product of an arduous and sometimes painful process.

“She is big time, one of the best I have seen around,” said Kosa of Lis.

“She wants it, she expects great things. She has worked so hard to get to this point. She sat out her sophomore year with an injury the entire year. That was so tough for her. She is just a great team player. She keeps putting us on her back. In every big game she rises. It is really a tribute to her because a lot of the teams game plan for her and she still scores. She is going through two, three, four people.”

For Lis, extending her final PHS campaign to overtime at the state final made for an unforgettable fall.

“It has been so unexpected, especially as a final hurrah for senior year,” said Lis.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to do this with. I am really proud and happy with our efforts.”

Lis’ stunning production and clutch play in leading PHS to a dream season make her the choice as the Town Topics top female performer of the fall season.

MAKING HIS MARK: Hun School quarterback Marco Lainez III fires a pass in recent action. Junior quarterback Lainez starred as Hun produced a 9-0 campaign this fall. Lainez passed for 1,761 yards and 21 touchdowns and also rushed for a team-high 451 yards. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Top Male Performer

Marco Lainez III brought a powerful arm and speed to the Hun School football team when he joined the program in the fall of 2020.

While quarterback Lainez showed flashes of brilliance as Hun went 3-3 in a season abbreviated by COVID-19 concerns, he was determined to show his leadership skills this fall to become the full package.

“It’s hard for anyone who comes in and has to get in someone’s face to demand leadership and you don’t even know the person,” said Lainez.

“We’ve built trust over time between the guys. They can finally look at me as a leader. When we get in a huddle, they have to believe.”

Lainez took command of the huddle and field this fall from the start, leading Hun to a 31-14 win over the Brunswick School (Conn.) in the season opener. That win set the tone for the season as Hun rolled to a 9-0 record with its closest win being a 21-7 victory over the Suffield Academy (Conn.) in early October.

“I feel like my decision- making has really taken a big leap,” said Lainez. “That’s because of my coaches and players around me. They make plays for me. That’s a good thing.”

The good results were the product of more than just skill.

“We definitely have a lot more team camaraderie,” said Lainez.

“We have a lot more chemistry with each other. Last year, given the circumstances, it was hard to develop chemistry with each other, get to know each other and personally bond. Now we have personal connections with each other and I think that’s a real reason for our success, because we love each other now as brothers.”

Hun head coach Todd Smith was impressed by the development he saw in Lainez, who passed for 1,761 yards and 21 touchdowns on the season and also rushed for a team-high 451 yards.

“He’s definitely taken total charge of the huddle,” said Smith of Lainez.

“He’s very comfortable with the offense. He really studies film and we meet every night after practice and we’re just watching film and taking notes and talking ball and you can see it start to translate out on the field. The best thing about Marco is he knows when he does something wrong. The bad thing is he’s his toughest critic. He just has to think, ‘Next play, great play.’ He’s been doing a great job of that. If he throws an incompletion, which there haven’t been that many of this year, he comes right back and throws a great ball the next play.”

In the view of Lainez, that work ethic permeated the squad.

“I see a lot of focus,” said Lainez. “Everybody is eager, focused and intensely driven. We all want to win for each other.”

For adding leadership skills to augment his talent as a passer and a runner and drive the Raiders to a perfect season, Lainez is the pick as the top male performer.

Top Newcomers

After playing for the Stuart Country Day School tennis team in her first two years at the school, Emily Ix decided to switch things up athletically.

Ix opted to put down her racket and join the Stuart field hockey team. 

“I love tennis and I really love team sports,” said Ix, who stars for the Stuart lacrosse team in the spring, having scored a team-high 37 goals in the 2021 campaign.

“A lot of my friends play field hockey and I love Miss Bruvik [field hockey head coach Missy Bruvik]. I got a lot out of tennis and I feel like a lot of my game in tennis translates to my game in field hockey so that has been really helpful.”

It didn’t take Ix long to develop a comfort level in her new sport.

“When I first started playing, the rules were a little different,” said Ix.

“My dribbling and stick skills have improved a lot. Lacrosse is my main sport probably and a lot of the same girls play lacrosse, so I was able to fit right in. It has been great with the team.”

Showing her skill, Ix tallied 13 goals and two assists this fall to end up as Stuart’s second highest scorer as it went 11-4-2 and advanced to the state Prep B final.

Stuart head coach Bruvik was certainly thrilled to have Ix come aboard this fall.

“Emily put down her tennis racket and said she was going to try it and I thought this is awesome because I just know her natural abilities,” said Bruvik.

“She is so coachable, she asks great questions. She works so hard to be in the right position at the right time. She has been a finisher for us. She can run end line to end line so we were able to put her in the midfield and teach her as she is going. She is learning every day and keeps building on those skills. It has been great to watch and that is all a tribute to her and her work ethic.”

Making an immediate impact in her first taste of field hockey earns Ix the nod as the top female newcomer.

Over the last few springs, Princeton High baseball star Carl Birge emerged as one of the top catchers in the area.

But this fall, Birge diversified his sporting portfolio, joining the PHS boys’ soccer team and earning the spot as its starting goalkeeper.

Tiger head coach Wayne Sutcliffe wasn’t nervous about having neophyte Birge as his last line of defense.

“He has been working all summer and is showing pretty well,” said Sutcliffe in assessing Birge’s preseason play.

“He has got great agility and strong hands. He has a soft touch on the ball. He brings another dimension because he is an experienced, distinct varsity athlete in another sport already. He brings some confidence and is close with the other seniors. It takes a while, but the athleticism lends itself and he is smart.”

Birge’s athleticism and skill was on display for the start of the season as he posted four shutouts in the first six games of the fall. He ended up yielding just 17 goals in 17 contests with nine shutouts as PHS posted a 10-2-5 record and advanced to the Mercer County Tournament semifinals.

Sutcliffe was thrilled with how Birge emerged as one of the top goalkeepers in the area.

“Carl has done a great job,” said Sutcliffe. “We have kept him out of trouble and he has come up big when we needed him to. We couldn’t be happier. The guys in front of him have so much experience so they can lend all of that experience in just
keeping him in a good place. He has improved every day in training, he has worked so hard. He is smart and he is a great athlete. We are working very closely with him.”

Birge’s superb work in his one and only season as the PHS goalie makes him the choice as top male newcomer.

Top Coaches

Dave Kosa didn’t have vast experience in the game as he took the helm of the Princeton High girls’ soccer team this fall.

Kosa, the longtime PHS girls’ basketball head coach, had served six years as the assistant coach for the soccer program before succeeding Val Rodriguez.

Prior to that, his main exposure to the game came in spending a lot of time in the stands as his late father, Louis Kosa, enjoyed a legendary career coaching the East Brunswick High girls’ soccer team, guiding the program to a 527-63-22 record, capturing eight state championships, and a No. 1 ranking in the nation in 1992. 

Heading into the season, Kosa was determined to keep PHS on the winning track.

HISTORIC DEBUT: Princeton High girls’ soccer head coach Dave Kosa makes a point to his players this fall. Kosa enjoyed a memorable debut campaign at the helm of the program, guiding the Tigers to a 21-3 record, the Central Jersey Group 3 sectional title, and program’s first-ever trip to the state Group 3 final. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

“I am really excited and happy to continue the tradition of the girls’ soccer program that Greg [Hand] had and passed on to Val,” said Kosa.

“It is a really good bunch. They are really good kids and good people; that is the most important thing. They have taken to working hard and just trying to get better. We want to play the best soccer at the end of the season. We have a lot of great talent. It is my job to mesh then and work them hard. We are really looking forward to that.”

PHS meshed well under Kosa’s guidance as it opened the season by routing Robbinsville 5-0. The Tigers got off to a 7-0 start, outscoring their foes 35-1 in the process.

“It is just watching these guys feed off one another and enjoy one another,” said Kosa, reflecting on his squad’s hot start.

“That is probably the most enjoyable part, aside from the victories, just watching them bond together.”

After losing 3-2 to Hopewell Valley on October 9, the Tigers started another winning streak, positing eight straight victories before losing 3-1 to HoVal in the Mercer County Tournament semifinals.

Saving its best for last, PHS went on a historic run in the state tournament. The Tigers rolled through the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Central Jersey Group 3 sectional, topping WW/P-North, Robbinsville and Colts Neck in succession to set up round three with HoVal in the sectional final. The third time proved to be the charm for Kosa’s squad as it topped the Bulldogs 2-0.

“It is just the fact that we are all coming together, I think we are playing our best soccer right now,” said Kosa.

“It is just a matter of going out and playing hard every day and being ready and making sure that our minds are right. If we are like that then whatever happens, happens.”

Good things happened in the state Group 3 semis as PHS headed down to Lacey Township and pulled out a 1-0 win overtime to book a spot the state final for the first time in program history.

Facing powerful Wayne Valley in the final, PHS fell behind 1-0 in the opening minutes of the contest but rallied to tie the game at 1-1 midway through the first half. The game stayed knotted at 1-1 through regulation and Wayne Valley ended up prevailing 2-1 in overtime.

The heartbreaking defeat, though, couldn’t dim what PHS accomplished this fall in Kosa’s debut campaign guiding the squad.

“I am extremely proud of the season we had and all of the hard work that we put in,” said Kosa, whose team ended the fall with a final record of 21-3.

“This is the state final and for us to get down 1-0 right off the bat maybe we were nervous, whatever it was. We did battle back and we tied it. We had our chances. That is a great team over there. We had the fight for 88 minutes or so, I couldn’t be more proud of our girls.”

For helping PHS make history as he took the reins of the program, Kosa is the choice as the top coach of a girls’ team this fall.

The Princeton High boys’ cross country team didn’t have the look of a championship contender as it headed into the 2021 campaign.

“The guys’ team was unproven but hungry with a lot of depth,” said PHS head coach Jim Smirk in assessing his squad.

With junior Andrew Kenny leading the way, that hunger started to translate into success. The Tigers showed their mettle by taking third of 25 squads in the Boys Varsity B team standings at the New Balance Shore Coaches Invitational at Holmdel Park in early October.

Weeks later, PHS nearly took first at the Mercer County championship meets at Washington Crossing Park, finishing second by one point to WW/P-North as the Northern Knights prevailed 52-53. Had any of Princeton’s top five finishers in that race moved up one spot, the Tigers would have won.

“Time-wise, they ran well but I think competitively, there is another level for them,” said Smirk, reflecting on the near miss at the county meet.

At the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Central Jersey Group 4 sectional meet on November 6, PHS reached a higher level. With four finishers in the top 17, the Tigers took first with a score of 82, just two points better than runner-up Manalapan.

“The term we used for what happened at counties was we were disorganized,” said Smirk.

“We didn’t quite take responsibility for racing well. We all kind of looked around to see who was going to take charge. Today was the
opposite. Right from the gun, everybody not only knew their role, but knew how to support each other during the race and we did exactly that.”

A week later, PHS took fourth at the Group 4 meet and earned a spot in the Meet of Champions as a wild card entrant.

“None of these guys have raced in the group championship before,” said Smirk.

“I think it was a big deal. It’s really a testament to them buying into the idea that cross country is really a team sport and everyone needs to contribute at their highest level if you want to be successful, and that’s what we did today.”

PHS culminated the fall on a high note, taking sixth in the team standings at the MOC. The finish tied the third-best placing in program history. The 2016 team won MOC, and the 2017 team placed fourth, while the 1974 Tiger boys also placed sixth.

In assessing his squad’s unlikely ascension to a sectional title, Smirk credited it to a shared focus on excellence.

“We all pulled in the same direction at the same time,” said Smirk.

“However much the commitment was to the summer training for individuals, it was the trust and belief in each other and the commitment to pushing each other to become better every day that was the other half of the equation.”

Smirk’s role in getting his runners to pull in the winning direction makes him the pick as the top coach of a boys’ team.