June 8, 2022

With Gardner Coming Through When the Heat Was On, PDS Girls’ Lax Edged Bishop Eustace in Non-Public Semi

GOAL-ORIENTED: Princeton Day School girls’ lacrosse player Paige Gardner heads to goal in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public B tournament. Last week, junior star Gardner tallied five goals and three assists, including the game-winner, as top-seeded PDS edged fourth-seeded Bishop Eustace 15-14 in the Non-Public B semis. On Saturday, Gardner scored seven goals to help PDS defeat third-seeded Holy Spirit in the Non-Public B final. The Panthers, who improved to 14-8 with the win, were slated to face Oak Knoll in the quarterfinal of the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions on June 7. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

The heat was on as the Princeton Day School girls’ lacrosse team hosted Bishop Eustace in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public B semifinals last week and Paige Gardner was determined to keep firing away.

With the temperatures soaring into the 90s during the May 31 contest, top-seeded PDS fell behind fourth-seeded Bishop Eustace 10-9 with 18:17 left in the second half.

Junior attacker Gardner took matters into her hands, scoring two goals and assisting on another as the Panthers forged ahead 14-10.

“I think we were concerned and the yellow cards were not on our side, that was something we were really battling with,” said Gardner. “There was a point where we have to go, we have to keep going. Once we get a goal we can’t take a break, we just have to keep going and know your break is coming after the game.”

Bishop Eustace, though, responded with a 4-0 run to knot the contest at 14-14. Gardner came through again, finding the back of the cage with 2:00 left in the game on a feed from Tessa Caputo in what proved to be the decisive tally in a 15-14 win for the Panthers.

“I just looked at the clock and we were tied so we had to go,” recalled Gardner, who tallied five goals and three assists in the victory. “Tessa [Caputo] set me up, I wasn’t really thinking about it. If anyone scored that is what we needed.”

The triumph sent PDS to the Non-Public B final in its debut appearance in the competition. The Panthers went on to defeat third-seeded Holy Spirit 17-11 in the Non-Public B final on Saturday in improving to 14-8.

Looking ahead to the final, Gardner noted that winning the Prep B championship earlier this season gave PDS a big confidence boost heading into the Non-Public competition.

“It is so exciting, especially after winning the Prep B,” said Gardner, referring to the Panthers’ 13-12 win over Montclair Kimberley Academy in the Prep B state final on May 20.

“That was awesome, we haven’t even gotten to the Prep B championship for PDS lacrosse since 2017. That was huge for us. Once we got to this point, we are going to keep pushing until we can’t any more.

Gardner acknowledged that the Panthers got pushed hard by Bishop Eustace, prompting a fiery halftime message from PDS head coach Jill Thomas with the teams tied at 7-7.

“We started getting a little nervous but we had a talk at halftime,” recalled Gardner.

“It was really about toughness and having trust in each other. It was so hot. I am proud that we worked so hard, I think we really deserved it.”

Working well with sophomore star Caputo helped Gardner come up big in the clutch.

“We have been playing together for a while, we are also on the same club team,” said Gardner. “She is a year younger than me. She is insane so we work off of each other nicely.”

In the win over Bishop Eustace, PDS displayed its offensive balance as Caputo tallied three goals and two assists with Sophie Jaffe contributing four goals, Elle Anhut chipping in two goals and two assists, and Ali Surace getting a goal and two assists.

“I feel like we have a lot of offensive firepower,” said Gardner. “We have just been working on our chemistry so much … and it is really paying off. Everyone was setting everyone up so well. We have so much trust in each other,”

Having now tallied a team-high 75 goals this season, Gardner has worked hard to earn the trust of her teammates.

“I feel like offseason practice really helped, I would just do anything to help out the team,” said Gardner. “Footwork is the thing I worked on the most. It is also working together as a team in our off-season training and our Florida trip.”

PDS head coach Thomas acknowledged that she lit a fire under her players during her halftime speech.

“I don’t yell at them often, I said we are not tough, you are giving them this game, you are allowing them to go,” said Thomas, noting that the Panthers were a player down due to yellow card starting with eight minutes left in regulation and were two players down for the last three minutes of the contest.

“Then we settled and whatever and they just kept coming back and we kept answering every time and we lost a player. Every time we lost a player we would answer. The game is played with 12 players, we just won it and we are going to the finals with 10.”

While Thomas wasn’t surprised that Gardner got the winning tally, she noted that any one of a number of PDS players could have come through.

“Paige was great but we have been a ‘we’ this year,” said Thomas. “Our halftime message, beginning of the game messages, and yesterday’s message was we before me. If Paige had to get it, Paige had to get it but somebody was going to get it.”

The Panther defensive unit made some big stops when it counted.

“We played great defense,” said Thomas, who was inducted into the New Jersey Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2018 and previously announced that she is retiring at the end of the season after 34 years at the school. “We are young, that is a first year defense out there. Arden [Bogle] was huge in goal, she got the chain today (given to the team’s player of the game) and well deserved.”

For Thomas, it was an emotional moment to lead her team to a thrilling tournament win in her last game on Smoyer Field as the title contest was played at Hunterdon Central.

“Like all of them, they are all good memories, they are all special,” said Thomas, when asked to reflect on her memories regarding the home field. “I don’t know how many wins and championships and losses too. The players that have played on this field; there are a lot of great ones, you know that.”

Thomas was looking forward to making another great memory as the Panthers played for a second championship in her swan song.

“We are going to the dance, is what I tell the girls,” said Thomas. “They got the ticket and we will see you there.”

Gardner and her teammates were determined to cash in that ticket for themselves and their departing leader.

“It is for the team and also for coach Thomas and everything she has given us and this program,” said Gardner. “Everyone just wants it so bad.”