June 29, 2022

PHS Boys’ Tennis Standout Gu, Hun Softball Star Kobryn Get the Nod as Town Topics’ Leading Spring Performers

STRONG CONNECTION: Hun School softball player Lexi Kobryn belts the ball in action this spring. Sophomore Kobryn starred with the bat and with her pitching as Hun went 18-1 and won the state Prep A title. Kobryn threw two perfect games and four other no-hitters with 190 strikeouts in 87 innings this season. At the plate, Kobryn hit a team-best .500 with team highs in homers (7), RBIs (28), and runs (30). (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

While Jonathan Gu was disappointed when the Princeton High boys’ tennis team fell 4-1 to Millburn in the NJSIAA Group 3 state final in early June, he was proud of how the squad competed.

“Millburn is a big test, they are a top team in the state and we are not that far off,” said PHS junior star Gu, who won his match at first singles to give PHS its only point in the defeat.

With another big test, the NJSIAA boys state singles competition, on the horizon, Gu was primed to show that he was a top player in the state.

“It is just one match at a time, no match is a given match,” said Gu, looking ahead to the singles tourney. “Every match, you have to focus.”

Displaying his focus, Gu rolled through the competition, posting a series of straight-set wins on the way to the final against East Brunswick’s Jack Wong.

Surviving a marathon match, Gu prevailed 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 6-2 to earn the singles state crown in a match played on June 16 at the Mercer County Park tennis complex.

NO BACKING DOWN: Princeton High boys’ tennis star Jonathan Gu prepares to hit a backhand in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) boys singles championship match. Junior Gu defeated East Brunswick’s Jack Wong 7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 6-2 to win the title and cap an undefeated season. Gu is the first state boys’ singles champion from PHS since Jacob Leschly in 1984. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

“It feels pretty good,” said Gu, reflecting on the victory. “I didn’t expect it at all, but with the withdrawals and a couple of matches that could have gone either way it feels pretty good.”

Gu became the first state singles champion from PHS since Jacob Leschly in 1984. Mark Leschly was the last Tiger male to reach a state final in 1986. Gu joined Christina Rosca, who won the girls state singles crown in 2013, as state champions coached by Sarah Hibbert.

The triumph capped an undefeated season for Gu. He also won his first Mercer County Tournament title — in his first time playing in it because of prior year’s cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

PHS head coach Hibbert was thrilled to see Gu come through with the title.

“It’s absolutely fantastic for Jonathan,” said Hibbert. “He really works hard. He has had an amazing season this year. Obviously Christina winning it in 2013 was super exciting for the school. We hadn’t had a champion in certainly my time and looking back in the record books, it’s been since 1984 since we had a boys’ champion. It’s been decades since we had a state champion be able to put it all together.”

In Hibbert’s view, developing a more well-rounded game mentally and physically was a key to Gu’s success this spring.

“I think there’s a bit more maturity to his game, a bit more of being able to bounce back when your frustration level starts to get high,” said Hibbert. “He’s able to take it back down and not let your frustrations or poor shot choices get the better of you, be able to wipe out your mistakes and be able to go forward and not be hindered by the past. He’s added more pace on his game as well, and a little more variety. He’s always a hard worker, he’s always training those extra hours, and it’s great to see it pay off for him.”

That maturity made the difference in the battle against Wong.

“He really played an amazing first set, got a little tight in the second, and it was tricky for him to keep mentally focused through two injury timeouts and a lot of other things going on,” said Hibbert. “When it counted, he was able to put it together and play some really great tennis. I’m very pleased and excited for him. It’s a great accomplishment, especially as a junior. We’ll hope for good things next year too.”

The county/state title double meant a lot of Gu. “It’s definitely fun,” said Gu. “Last year we didn’t have the county tournament. This year the county tournament was a new thing for me since freshman year it was canceled. That felt pretty good winning that. Last year, in the state tournament, I had a tough loss. I was glad I could play better.

For making history with his brilliant play, Gu is the choice as the Town Topics top male performer of the spring high school season.

After producing a superb freshman season for the Hun School softball team in 2021, Lexi Kobryn wasn’t resting on her laurels as she prepared for her sophomore campaign.

“I have been in the gym all fall and winter and I have gotten a lot stronger,” said Kobryn, who emerged as a star pitcher and power hitter during her debut season. “I was also working with my pitching coach. I have definitely gotten a lot faster, I am hitting 65.”

Kobryn didn’t waste any time showing her strength and velocity, tossing a perfect game in a 6-0 win over Mercersburg Academy in a season opening doubleheader.

That was a harbinger of things to come as Kobryn ended up with two perfect games and four other no-hitters this spring.

Kobryn also excelled with the bat, going 4-of-7 with three runs and three RBIs in that twin bill against Mercersburg and she kept blasting the ball all spring.

Sparked by Kobryn, Hun put together a dominant campaign, winning its first 10 games before suffering a disappointing 8-7 loss to Lawrenceville that saw it squander a 7-0 lead in the seventh inning.

Rebounding from that setback, Hun posted seven straight wins to earn a rematch with Lawrenceville in the state Prep A championship game.

Kobryn and her teammates were fired up to get another shot at the Big Red.

“I was definitely nervous; it was one inning that really killed us,” said Kobryn. “We wanted to come back and show what we are made of and what we have been working for.”

Kobryn kept her head, putting on a show with her arm and bat as the Raiders prevailed 11-2 over the Big Red. She hurled a complete game, striking out 10 and yielding five hits and went 3 for 4 at the plate with two runs and two RBIs as Hun posted a final record of 18-1 on the way to winning its first Prep A title since 2017.

“I definitely stepped it up from last year,” said Kobryn, who piled up 190 strikeouts in 87 innings this season. “I did well last year but even better this year. I have been working really hard over the fall and winter. I was in the gym every day.”

At the plate, Kobryn saw the fruits of her labor, hitting a team-best .500 with team highs in homers (7), RBIs (28), and runs (30).

“I did the same thing with my hitting, this is all I do. I work hard, I hit off the tee whenever I can and just focus on my mechanics,” said Kobryn.

Hun head coach Kathy Quirk credited Kobryn with being a major spark to the team’s title run.

“She just does a great job for us and I am very happy,” said Quirk of Kobryn. “I am very pleased with her, I am proud of her. She just throws hard, she just knows what to do.”

Kobryn sensed early on that Hun was primed for a great season.

“I knew when we had our spring training, we were
going to do some damage this year,” said Kobryn. “We had some practice games before and we already had a feel of what we were going to go into.”

For doing so much damage with her arm and bat this spring as Hun rolled to a state title, Kobryn gets the nod as the top female performer this spring.

Top Newcomers

Focusing on soccer as his main sport, Zach Della Rocca’s speed stood out as one of the best qualities on the pitch.

Wondering whether his speed would translate on the track, junior Della Rocca decided to join the Princeton High track and field program.

It didn’t take long for Della Rocca to find a home in the fast lane.

“I love it,” said Della Rocca of his introduction to track.“It’s very addicting. It’s a very different type of fitness that you don’t get from soccer. We do a lot of weight training which I really enjoy doing. It’s helped me, especially mentally, focus on being able to compete. It requires a lot of mental attention. Anxiety builds so you have to stay calm. I’ve seen it help me in many ways, and I really enjoy it.”

Della Rocca starred at the Mercer County outdoor track championship meet, winning the 400 meters in a school-record time of 48.52 and taking first in the 200 meters.

“I’m better at the 400,” said Della Rocca. “What I’m noticing is I can keep my speed going longer than a lot of the short sprinters can. I think that’s from soccer, the many years I played soccer just building that endurance. I think that’s why I’m better at the 400.”

PHS head coach Ben Samara was thrilled to have Della Rocca join the Tiger program.

“We’re so happy that Zach came out for the team this year and that he’s able to be with us,” said Samara.

“His attitude and the way that he carries himself is reminiscent of the guys who were on that state championship team on 2018. And that’s something that we’re really trying to get back to, that mentality of grind and put your head down and get your work done and by all means necessary get yourself better. Zach embodies that and he’s a great example, even in year one, for our entire team.”

Building on his success in the county meet, Della Rocca took second in the 400 and third in the 200 at the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional meet. At the Group 4 state meet, he placed third in the 400 and seventh in the 200. Culminating his debut campaign, Della Rocca placed fourth in the 400 at the Meet of Champions.

For Della Rocca, taking up track turned out to be a life-changing decision.

“I’ve always wanted to try it, but with COVID, it became hard,” said Della Rocca. “This last soccer season, my coach would say, ‘When you go out on the field, use your speed.’ That curiosity of what I could do on the track, I knew I had to try it. I’m glad I did.”

For emerging as a champion in his first season in the track, Della Rocca is the choice as the leading male newcomer of the spring.

As Mark Maser assessed his Stuart Country Day School lacrosse team, he knew that freshman Allison Lee was something special.

“Allison has been playing the game for a while, she plays club,” said Stuart head coach Maser. “She is a smaller kid as a freshmen but she can do everything — right hand, left hand, pass, and catch. She is really, really good.”

The skilled midfielder tallied four goals in a season opening 17-7 defeat to Princeton Day School on April 4 in a harbinger of things to come.

“Everyone has their role on the team and my role has been to help with the scoring,” said Lee. “I can always count on my team. They are always supporting me so it allows me to score.”

Despite making an instant impact, Lee acknowledged that moving up to high school level was challenging.

“It has been hard mentally getting into the groove,” said Lee, who took up lacrosse in third grade and plays for a club program. “But I can rely on my team so much.”

The Tartan team ended up relying on Lee to spark its attack. “Allison keeps getting a little bit better every day; we have talked to her about moving the goalie and placing the shots because she has that talent to do it,” said Maser of Lee, who ended up tallying 84 points on 66 goals and 18 assists this season.

“She is motivating others through her play. She is modeling good play and others see it. She might not be the most outspoken. Rather than leading by words, she is leading by deed and example.”

With Lee leading the way, Stuart produced a late surge that saw it go 5-3 down the stretch after a 1-5 start.

“In practice, we have been working really hard, we have been working on different plays,” said Lee. “It is a lot about the teamwork. In the beginning, it was little bit rougher but then we started to come together. The whole team has been working really hard and it has been showing in the results.”

For showing a special skill set in her freshman campaign that drove the Stuart offense, Lee gets the nod as the top female newcomer.

FITTING FINALE: Princeton Day School girls’ lacrosse head coach Jill Thomas, far right, celebrates after PDS defeated Holy Spirit 17-11 in the NJSIAA Non-Public B state final in early June. The triumph marked the second title this season for the Panthers as they had previously edged Montclair Kimberley Academy 13-12 in the Prep B state final. The triumph gave Thomas a special going away present as the New Jersey Lacrosse Hall of Famer previously announced that she is retiring at the end of the season after 34 years at the school. (Photo by Bill Alden)

Top Coaches

Heading into 2022, Tom Monfiletto was determined to make sure that his Hun School baseball team didn’t take anything for granted coming off a dominant campaign last spring.

“I think having commitment to getting better every day is key,” said Hun head coach Monfiletto. “We have had some success these past few years in 2019 and 2021 but we don’t have any room to rest on that. Our schedule is so relentless that we can’t just rely on that. We have to rely on getting coached, getting better, working hard, and understanding that we are not sneaking up on anybody. People are aware of us. It is an awesome thing. We love being in that place but by no means is it a done deal. We have to earn every bit of recognition that we get.”

Producing a sizzling 12-1 start, Hun showed that it had another awesome team. Stocked with Division I talent, the Raiders featured a deep pitching staff and a powerful batting attack.

Heading into postseason play, the Raiders were seeded second in the Mercer County Tournament. Seeking the program’s first-ever MCT title, Hun topped WW/P-North 10-0 in an opening round contest and then rallied in the seventh inning to edge arch-rival Lawrenceville 3-2 in a tense quarterfinal matchup. After surviving the challenge from the Big Red, the Raiders topped WW/P-South 6-2 in the semis and then blanked Hamilton West 6-0 in the title game.

For Monfiletto, a former Hun player and assistant coach, guiding the Raiders to the MCT title was an awesome achievement.

“It meant more than I can even describe, from the school community, from the alumni and from the parents with the emotions that were involved in that game,” said Monfiletto, a 2004 Hun alum.

“The amount of correspondence I had with people after that game was more than any win that we have had. It is something that we have wanted to do for such a long time and we have never been able to. I was really happy. I thought about coach [Bill] McQuade the whole time because as a player for coach and as coach with him, I know how much that tournament meant to him. We were always in positions where we had to make difficult decisions as to who would pitch based on the Prep tournament and the Mid-Atlantic Prep League (MAPL).”

Going after its sixth straight Prep A state title, Hun was in a tough position as its
pitching staff got stretched thin competing simultaneously in the MCT and injuries hampered some key players and the Raiders ended up falling 5-3 to Pingry in the final.

While that defeat stung, Monfiletto had a memorable spring guiding the squad that ended up with a 22-4 record.

“They are extremely talented, that is No. 1; I am very lucky to be able to coach some really, really good baseball players,” said Monfiletto. “On top of that, I truly believe they root for each other. They truly care about each other’s success. They have a very strong personal connection with each other that is going to last for a very long time.”

Monfiletto credited his senior group with leaving a strong legacy.

“They have propelled this program into a different stratosphere,” said Monfiletto. “We are on a completely different level. We are recognized with some of the best programs in New Jersey which was our goal. I think we will be that way for a while. It is incredible, I think we tied the program record for wins. The schedule that we played was a juggernaut, especially at the end of the season. We had some huge wins, some signature wins.”

Monfiletto’s steady leadership in keeping Hun focused on a daily basis as it came through with a historic title makes him the choice as the top coach of a male team.

This spring marked the end of an era for the Princeton Day School girls’ lacrosse team.

After a quarter century guiding the program, it was the final campaign for head coach Jill Thomas.

PDS head coach Thomas, who was inducted into the New Jersey Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2018 and previously announced that she is retiring after 34 years at the school, was determined to savor the spring

“I think it is bittersweet, this is a great group of people,” said Thomas.

“This group of seniors is pretty special. Since 2019, we haven’t had a full season so I think it is going to be great. It is really about them, not me.”

Thomas sensed that the Panthers could do some special things in her final campaign.

“They have to keep being together and playing well together, I think that has been a real key factor since we started,” said Thomas. “We have that chemistry that carries you through the not-so-good times. They have to continue to work hard, they have to continue to move the ball down the field in transition and score a lot of goals. I think they are going to be fun to watch, they are going to be exciting. Kudos to them.”

Going 7-7 in regular season action, PDS didn’t appear to be headed to a fun postseason. Competing in the Mercer County Tournament, the Panthers fell 13-7 to Princeton High in the MCT quarterfinals.

Undeterred by that defeat, PDS showed its mettle in the Prep B state tourney, defeating Morristown-Beard 14-10 in the semis and then rallying from a late 12-9 deficit to edge Montclair Kimberley Academy 13-12 in the final

In reflecting on that run, which marked the program’s first Prep B crown since 2017, Thomas believed it set the tone for a second title run in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public B tournament.

“That was a big step on the road, you go up north two times, the semis and the finals,” said Thomas. “Those were all nail-biter games and then you are sitting at that No. 1 up there in the Non-Public B.”

Making its debut in the Non-Public B competition, the Panthers kept rolling, topping Morris Catholic 13-1 in the opening round and then defeating St. Elizabeth 15-4 in the quarterfinals. Facing fourth-seeded Bishop Eustace in the semis on a sweltering day with the temperatures hitting the 90s, PDS rallied to pull out a 15-14 win.

In the final against third-seeded Holy Spirit, the Panthers utilized their high-powered attack to pull away to a 17-11 win and earn the title double.

For PDS senior star Elle Anhut, helping Thomas go out with the championship meant the world to the players.

“It is amazing, we wanted to win not just for everyone but for coach Thomas,” said Anhut. “It would send everybody out in the best way possible. We knew we wanted to make history for coach Thomas because she is making history herself. We were like let’s bring it home for her.”

In the wake of the triumph, Thomas hugged players, coaches, and team managers with a grin that didn’t leave her face.

“Who gets to do that?” said Thomas with a laugh reflecting on going out with the title double and a season that saw the Panthers ultimately go 14-9 as it ended the spring with a 14-9 loss to Oak Knoll in the quarterfinal of the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions.

“I couldn’t imagine it. It is the we before the me and everybody bought in. When everybody bought in, then we were the best. Getting the Prep B, maybe it was the semi of that tournament where they started to really believe it would take all of us every day. I think we have been moving forward.”

For keeping her squad moving forward on the way to a title double to culminate her legendary career, Thomas is the choice as the top coach of a female team.