Fall Review: PDS Cross Country’s McCann, Hun Football QB Lainez Earn the Nod as Town Topics’ Leading Fall Performers
AHEAD OF THE PACK: Princeton Day School girls’ cross country runner Emily McCann displays her form in a race this fall. Junior star McCann had a breakthrough season for PDS, placing first in both the XC Fall Classic at Thompson Park and the Jerry Hart Cross Country Invitational, third in the Mercer County Championships, fourth at the New Balance Shore Coaches Invitational, and 13th in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public A group meet. She capped her stellar campaign by taking second in the Prep B state championship meet, pacing the PDS girls’ program to its first-ever Prep team title. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
Emily McCann hit the road this summer as she looked to take things to a higher level this season for the Princeton Day School girls’ cross country team.
Junior McCann ramped up her weekly running mileage like never before in her preseason training.
“This summer, I put in a lot of miles,” said McCann, who also stars in ice hockey for the Panthers. “Last year I didn’t have a training plan. This summer, I had a specific training plan and basically I crossed off mileage every day and got up to 50 miles per week and an 11-mile long run, which was the longest. It wasn’t a lot of workouts, it was just building base mileage, and I think that’s really where I changed this year versus last.”
First-year PDS head coach Mike Mazzei was impressed with how McCann thrived with her increased workload.
“Some kids can’t handle that mileage and some kids get injured when they go up in miles, but she’s a strong runner and strong athlete,” said Mazzei. “I tested the waters a bit with her and she was doing good with the 40-mile weeks — so let’s go to 45. Then we bumped her up to 50, then we kind of went down from there. It was kind of like a pyramid. We had her go up to 50, then we trimmed her down to 40-45. Then we got into the season and kept her around 35-40. I think that good summer base — which I think is important for them — and using that as a springboard into the season was really what made her good this year.”
McCann was very good this fall, producing a string of impressive performances. She placed first in both the XC Fall Classic at Thompson Park and the Jerry Hart Cross Country Invitational and took fourth at the New Balance Shore Coaches Invitational in the early going.
In late October, McCann took third in the Mercer County Cross Country Championships.
“It was a little slower race, but there was a lot of headwind,” said McCann reflecting on her performance that day. “It wasn’t really about time today, it was about racing.” said McCann. “Last year I got eighth. My goal was to get top seven this year. Getting third boosted my confidence a lot and makes me feel good.”
Capping her stellar campaign at the Prep B state championships in early November, McCann placed second individually in a time of 20:15 over the 5,000-meter course to help PDS take first and earn the program’s first-ever Prep team title.
“This season, I pretty much met my goals so far,” said McCann, whose also placed 13th in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public A group meet. “I went sub-19:00, that was my big goal.”
Mazzei credited McCann with using her work ethic and talent to produce a breakthrough season.
“It is amazing how she has performed, she was already a star of the program,” said Mazzei of McCann. “I feel like this year she took it to a new level. I was really happy to see that. She was always a good runner, now she is starting to get to that elite in the state. I have coached good runners and I wanted to make them great. Emily was the first person I had who was already great who I could help reach an elite level.”
Turning those miles into a championship campaign makes McCann the choice as the Town Topics’ top female performer of the fall season.
AIR RAID: Hun School quarterback Marco Lainez III fires a pass in a 2021 game. Senior star and Iowa commit Lainez had career highs of 2,182 yards passing and 23 touchdown passes this fall to help the Raiders go 9-0 for the program’s second straight perfect season. He also rushed for 573 yards and five TDs. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Top Male Performer
Marco Lainez III had an off day when the Hun School football team fell 10-8 to Malvern Prep (Pa.) on Halloween 2020.
Star quarterback Lainez threw four interceptions that day and blamed himself for the defeat.
“I was probably the sole reason we lost that game,” said Lainez. “I walked off that field and said, ‘I never want to feel like this again.’ So I devoted as much time as I could to winning. I just wanted to win every game.”
Lainez hasn’t had many off days since then as Hun went 8-0 in 2021 and then produced a 9-0 campaign this fall.
The 6’3, 225-pound Lainez, an Iowa commit, saved his best for last this fall in his senior season.
Lainez finished the fall with career highs of 2,182 yards passing and 23 touchdown passes. He also rushed for 573 yards and five TDs.
In assessing his progress, Lainez attributes it, in part, to being smarter with the ball.
“I took care of the ball more,” said Lainez. “Then this year they wanted me to push the ball to our playmakers more instead of last year when it was take what they give me. This year, it was ‘let’s see if we can push it down the field more to these guys because we have a lot of weapons.’ I was taking calculated risks where as my sophomore year it was just naïve risks and I’d just throw it. I definitely think the growth mentally and emotionally helped the physical side.”
Hun head coach Todd Smith credits Lainez with showing growth as a person.
“As a leader, he’s stepped up and taken over that role,” said Smith. “I think the kids look up to him. He commands the huddle and they respect him and love him and that’s great. From an Xs and Os standpoint, he’s taken his game to another level.”
Smith also points to Lainez’s dedication to film study and being able to apply his new knowledge on the field as another key to his success. Since that 2020 Malvern game, the 6’3, 225-pound quarterback has thrown just five interceptions in two seasons total, including only two as a junior.
Looking ahead, Lainez is determined to apply himself in the same manner at the next level.
“I just want to do whatever it takes to see how good I can become mentally, physically, and emotionally,” said Lainez. “I also can’t wait to learn around those guys who are already there. Those guys are really talented. It’s a blessing to just being in the room with them, going in there and learning and being teammates with the guys and also seeing how good I can become. It’s just a great opportunity.”
Whatever happens, Lainez won’t soon forget the guys he played with at Hun.
“There are so many guys in that locker room that I just love to death and they push me in certain ways that you can’t find anywhere else,” said Lainez. “I’m going to miss being around the guys and competing with them in practice and then going to war with them. That’s the best part — when you step in the huddle and there’s 10 sets of eyes on you and you’re all sharing one goal.”
For using his arm and legs to help Hun achieve the goal of another prefect season, Lainez is the top male performer of the fall.
INSTANT HIT: Princeton High girls’ volleyball player Naomi Lygas hits a serve in a match this season. Freshman standout Lygas made an immediate impact for PHS, leading the team with 189 kills. Lygas helped PHS go 21-5, winning the Burlington County Scholastic League (BCSL) tournament and advancing to its first-ever sectional final along the way. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Naomi Lygas was pumped up to join the Princeton High girls’ volleyball team this fall.
“It is exciting, my whole volleyball career, I was looking forward to doing it,” said freshman Lygas. “I want to be a leader, but I don’t have a problem listening to other people. I feel like working as a team is the most important part.”
The dynamic Lygas emerged as a leading performer for PHS right from the start of the season, contributing a team-high 10 kills and five digs in a 2-1 win over WW/P-South in her high school debut.
Lygas kept killing it for the Tigers, ending up with a team-high 189 kills. Her heroics helped PHS go 21-5, winning the Burlington County Scholastic League (BCSL) tournament and advancing to its first-ever New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) sectional final along the way.
PHS head coach Patty Manhart was thrilled to have Lygas on the squad.
“It is so nice to have that player who you can rely on so if you are in a slump or you need that fire, you have the person you can go to who can figure it out and rack up those points,” said Manhart.
Lygas, for her part, enjoyed bringing her competitive fire to the Tigers.
“I would say I bring well rounded play,” said Lygas. “Even if I am not on the front row, I am working hard on the back row, just trying to be the best I can wherever I am.”
Producing a superb debut season with her sparkling play at the net as the Tigers reached new heights, Lygas gets the nod as the top female newcomer.
It didn’t take long for Brian Donis to make an impact in his first season for the Princeton High boys’ soccer team.
Moving up to the varsity this fall, sophomore forward Donis scored three goals in the team’s home opener as PHS defeated WW/P-N 5-0.
“It is amazing, I can’t even believe it myself,” said Donis, reflecting on his hat trick. “It was because of the team’s work that we got the win, that is very important. I am just very happy for the team.”
Donis acknowledged that the transition to the varsity level was challenging.
“It has been a bit difficult,” said Donis. “The first game against Trenton (a 1-0 on September 8) was very eye-opening; it just showed me to wake up and just play faster.”
Over the summer, Donis had an eye-opening experience, competing for the Princeton FC Barcelona team that won the 16U final in the US Youth Soccer (USYS) 2022 National Presidents Cup tournament in July.
“After having a great summer, I have lots of confidence with the boys,” said Donis. “PFC Barca was amazing and to play with some of the guys on the Princeton High team, I think we are all connected. It really helps us on the field.”
Donis ended up helping the Tigers a lot, tallying a team-high six goals along with two assists.
PHS head coach Wayne Sutcliffe saw Donis as a spark for his team which ended the fall with an 8-8-1 record.
“Brian had a really good season, he had a really good first half, finding his form,” said Sutcliffe. “The more minutes you play at this level in big games, you can’t buy that. You are just going to get better from that.”
For displaying superb form in his first varsity campaign for PHS, Donis is the top male newcomer.
Sarah Hibbert wasn’t sure what to expect from her Princeton High girls’ tennis team as it headed into the 2022 campaign.
“We have got five new faces in the lineup and seven people in different positions from last year,” said PHS head coach Hibbert, who guided the Tigers to a 13-3 record in 2021 and a spot to the Central Jersey Group 3 semifinals. “It will be a bit of a year for learning and growth.”
With PHS getting off to a 10-1 start in regular season action, Hibbert liked the growth shown by her squad early on.
“They have all clicked and have had fun getting started with the matches and everything,” said Hibbert.
While the squad didn’t click in the Mercer County Tournament as the Tigers finished seventh, Hibbert believed that competition would steel PHS for the state tournament.
“I think this will give us really good experience going into states, we will see what happens,” said Hibbert. “Hopefully this experience will help them get a little more prepared.”
Good things happened for PHS as it competed in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Group 3 Central Jersey sectional. In the semis, the Tigers avenged their lone defeat to that point, a 3-2 loss to WW/P-North in late September, by topping the Northern Knights 4-1.
“I think it was a little bit of experience and motivation from last time,” said Hibbert, reflecting on the win in the rematch. “We were disappointed with the way it ended. It was a very close match, it could have gone either way. It was disappointing after that 3-hour battle to wind up losing it 3-2 in a third set tiebreak and 7-5 third set. We knew we had the potential to win that. We were just hoping that we could use it for the motivation today and come out fired up and play our best tennis.”
PHS kept playing well, edging Red Bank Regional 3-2 in the sectional final and then nipping Shawnee 3-2 in the Group 3 state semis. The Tigers’ state run ended with a 5-0 loss to powerhouse Montgomery in the final.
“Overall we are thrilled, coming into the season we were like we will still beat the teams we were expected to but we are probably going to have a tough time with some of the stronger ones,” said Hibbert, whose team ended the fall with a 15-3 record. “The girls have really stepped up and have worked hard. They have had some great results. Just to make it here and have the win in the semis and be Group finalists in a year with five new players is great.”
Guiding her revamped squad to a sectional title and the state final makes Hibbert the top coach of a female team.
Pat Quirk sensed that his Hun School boys’ soccer team could be something special this fall.
“With the 12 or 13 kids who are coming back, they all have great experience here,” said Hun head coach Quirk, who guided the Raiders to a 10-7 record in 2021. “They all got into games last year at the varsity level. Winning a couple games and being close in some of the bigger games gives them more confidence but we know it is a whole new season.”
In late September, Hun made a big statement with a 3-0 win over perennial power Pennington.
“We knew that we could hold them,” said Quirk in assessing his program’s first win over the Red Hawks since 2010. “I know we are a little bit better than last year and we have guys who experience from last year coming back. We said look we are not going to back down, we are going to play scared. It is tough not to play scared against that team because they are a powerhouse. They have a lot.”
Hun brought a 9-2-2 record into the Mercer County Tournament, earning the second seed.
“We believe in these guys, we have been in some close games and we have pulled them out,” said Quirk, looking ahead to postseason play. “We found a way to win and that is what good teams do and I would say these guys are a pretty good team.”
The Raiders went on to lose a close 1-0 contest to Pennington in MCT semis and then fell 4-0 to the Red Hawks in the Prep A state semis.
Heading into its season finale against Peddie, Hun was in the running for one more title.
“It is Senior Day, it is a celebration,” said Quirk. “It is a chance to win back-to-back Mid-Atlantic Prep League (MAPL) titles, which we haven’t done in a long time.”
The Raiders did just that, defeating the Falcons 3-0 to earn that MAPL championship repeat and finish the season at 12-4-2.
For guiding his squad to a higher level and a second straight league title, Quick is the choice as the top coach of a male team.