March 27, 2024

PHS Girls’ Swimmer Tangen, Tiger Star Wrestler Mele Get Nod as Town Topics’ Leading Winter Performers

BREAKING FREE: Princeton High girls’ swimmer Kyleigh Tangen churns to the finish in a 100 freestyle race this winter. Senior star Tangen’s sprinting prowess helped PHS go 14-1 as it won a third straight Mercer County title and advanced to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Group B state final. Tangen won the 50 and 100 freestyle titles at the county meet and won those two races in the 89-81 loss to Chatham in the state final. (Photo by Steven Wojtowicz)

By Bill Alden

Kyleigh Tangen was determined to be the best version of herself this winter in her final season with the Princeton High girls’ swimming team.

“I would like to end on a good note; something I struggle with every time I race is I think of things that could be better,” said senior standout Tangen. “I am worried that when I end the season the only thing on my mind will be how can I do this better next time but there won’t be a next time.”

In looking to fine-tune her sprinting, Tangen branched out in her events this winter, swimming in the 200 freestyle in addition to the 50 and 100 free.

“I have been trying to become a little bit more of a distance swimmer this season and I have been lacking on my sprint events,” said Tangen, who also stars for the PHS cross country program. “I am trying to use the 100 free like a measuring stick, I try to race it every single time as hard as I can like a speed workout. I have to be taking it really seriously. I want to get better in the 200 free, but I wouldn’t say it is my main event. I want to be become more well-rounded.”

PHS head coach Carly (Misiewicz) Fackler pointed to Tangen’s athleticism and competitive fire as keys to making her a very well-rounded swimmer.

“She is also really big into running and cross country,” said Fackler. “She is a competitor, she is an athlete. She wants to win. She gets in the pool and wants to beat every single person that is next to her, and you can’t ask for anything more from an athlete.”

Tangen went on to win a lot of races this winter. She placed first in both the 50-meter and 100 freestyle races at the Mercer County Swimming Championships as the Tigers cruised to the team title.

In the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Group B sectional tournament, Tangen won the 50-yard and 100 free in each meet as PHS defeated WW/P-South in the semi and Manasquan in the final.

Tangen achieved the 50 and 100 free double as PHS defeated Shawnee in the Group B states semis and won both races as PHS fell 89-81 to Chatham in a dramatic state final showdown.

While Tangen was disappointed to see PHS fall just short of a state title repeat, she saved her best for last.

“Both of the times that I swam today were the fastest I have ever swum,” said Tangen. “Historically, I have always swam the fastest I have ever swum at this meet.”

Fackler credited Tangen with giving her best to the end. “Kyleigh swam her heart out, she had the relay swim of a lifetime,” said Fackler, referring to Tangen’s anchor leg in the 400 free relay where she nearly erased a 1.5 second deficit as she battled Chatham star Kiera Harkins. “She never ceases to amaze me — 23.7 in the 50 free in winning that and winning the 100 free. They were lifetime bests for her. At this point that is all you could ever ask for. I think if she had another four or five yards in the relay, she would have had her.”

While it may not have been the best ending for Tangen, ultimately she was proud of her efforts.

“I would like to say thank you to all of the senior girls especially,” said Tangen, who finished eighth in the 50-yard freestyle in the NJSIAA Meet of Champions to wrap up her senior campaign. “It has been such a fun ride and I am going to miss them all so much. I am happy that we had the maximum amount of meets this year so I could keep swimming with all of them.”

For playing a leading role in helping PHS enjoy another ride to a state final, Tangen is the choice as the Town Topics’ leading girl performer of the winter season.

GETTING A GRIP: Princeton High wrestler Blasé Mele, top, controls a foe in a bout last season. Junior Mele went 41-7 this winter, placing first at 138 pounds at the Sam Cali Invitational and the Mercer County Tournament. He placed second in New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) District 17 tourney and third in Region 5 at 138. He culminated his season by taking sixth at 138 at the NJSIAA Boys Wrestling State Championships in Atlantic City.

Top Boy Performer

Blasé Mele wasn’t shy about expressing confidence in his prospects this winter for the Princeton High wrestling team.

“I think my mentality has changed and I’ve moved toward speaking things into existence,” said Mele. “If I truly believe that I can hang with the best, I need to speak that into existence, talking with coaches, talking with teammates, talking with family members. There’s a time to be humble, but there’s also a time to let everyone know what you’re about.”

Making an early statement, Mele posted a pair of wins over nationally ranked opponents at the Sam Cali Invitational in last December to earn the 138-pound title in the high profile event held on the FDU-Florham campus.

PHS head coach Jess Monzo was not surprised to see Mele come through in the high profile competition.

“I’ve definitely seen a difference in him this year,” said Monzo. “There’s definitely been a confidence in his walk, how he carries himself. I can see the difference in the school just walking around the hallways, everything about him — the way he presents himself, when he’s taken leadership roles in the room, in the halls, in the classroom, there’s something different that I haven’t seen in the last two years. I think it’s a testament to what he’s been doing and the goals he’s setting for himself.”

Mele, for his part, set some high goals for himself this winter.

“I’ve got very lofty expectations with wrestling,” said Mele. “As much as it’s nice to see progression and improvement, I’m a competitor and I love to win. Losing, it eats at me unlike anything else. When I go out on the mat, my only goal is I want to win and assert my dominance over my opponent.”

Producing a dominant campaign, Mele placed first at 138 in the Mercer County Tournament. He took second in NJSIAA District 17 tourney and third in Region 5 at 138. He culminated his season by taking sixth at 138 at the NJSIAA Boys Wrestling State Championships in Atlantic City to make the podium.

“It’s such a hard tournament,” said Mele of the state championships. “I’ve been there twice. The environment is like no other. I’d like to say I’ve competed everywhere, and the environment is like no other. It’s starting to set in how it’s been pretty cool. I have one more year and I’m shooting for gold. I’m trying to get Princeton its first state title.”

Monzo was thrilled to see Mele to compete so well in Atlantic City.

“That was the goal at the beginning of the season,” said Monzo. “To be honest, I think his goal was to be a little higher than what he accomplished this year. Going back to December, and at the Sam Cali, he wins the tournament and has two really, really great wins over nationally ranked guys. And those two wins really helped him believe that he could do it, and gave him the confidence that he wasn’t the guy that was just dreaming.”

Mele, for his part, credited Monzo and his staff with helping him achieve his goals. 

“My coaches were super great about keeping me focused on what was in front of me,” said Mele, who posted a 41-7 record this winter. “It was, ‘We’re done wrestling, let’s go check our weight and see where we are.’ This was a business trip. I was down there to get something done, to do it for Princeton, to do it for my team. As much as this is a state medal for me, this is a state medal for my wrestling family, my boys. I’ve been practicing with these guys. It’s about time we’ve had someone on the state podium.”

For making PHS program history in a dominant campaign, Mele gets the nod as the top boy performer this winter.

DRIVING FORCE: Hun School girls’ basketball player Gabby D’Agostino drives to the hoop in a game this past winter. Sophomore transfer guard D’Agostino made a big impact in her first season with Hun, scoring a team-high 370 points. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Top Newcomers

Gabby D’Agostino didn’t waste any making an impact as she joined the Hun School girls’ basketball team this winter.

Sophomore guard D’Agostino, a transfer from New Hope-Solebury (Pa.), poured in 47 points in her Hun debut as Raiders fell 83-78 to George School (Pa.) in its season opener.

Hun head coach Sean Costello knew he had something special on his hands in D’Agostino.

“She is very, very good, she is a point guard; it is the most points of any kid I have coached and I have coached really high level kids with AAU,” said Costello. “I had a conversation with Gabby at the beginning of the year and I told her realistically she should be flirting with 30 a lot as fast as we are playing and as good as she is. She can score in a lot of different ways. She does shoot the ball well, she is really quick, and she can get to the foul line. She puts a lot of pressure on the defense. She is also a good passer. She is going to be a pretty highly touted kid.”

In making the transition to Hun, D’Agostino quickly developed a comfort level with her new teammates and the school.

“It has been very, very good. They are so welcoming,” said D’Agostino. “I have only been here for four months, but I feel like I have known all of them my whole life. I am close with absolutely everyone on the team and that makes it so much easier in the classroom as well.”

On the court, D’Agostino looked to trigger the Hun offense with her playmaking and scoring.

“It is whatever they need me to do — I am still kind of finding my footprint being halfway through the season,” said D’Agostino, who ended up scoring a team-high 370 points. “I have to facilitate a little bit more than I did at New Hope and just do whatever I can do to get my teammates open shots. If I have an open shot, I am going to take it because it helps the team.”

D’Agostino also helped the Raiders get on the same page. “The spacing is very good, being able to pass and cut through the lane and being able to have all of those open options,” said D’Agostino. “With them being able to find me and me being able to find them, it is very easy to work with.”

Costello was excited with how well D’Agostino worked with her teammates.

“It is interesting, you forget sometimes that she is a sophomore,” said Costello. “We ask a lot of her. We are lucky to have her, I think the kids play really well with her. There are kids sacrificing shots and roles and it is a really good team that we are working with.”

Emerging as the go-to player for Hun from day one in her debut season with the Raiders, D’Agostino is the choice as the top girl newcomer.

Eugene Burroughs sensed that guard Gary Jennings would become a key performer for the Princeton Day School boys’ basketball team this winter despite being a freshman.

“Gary will be one of our primary ball handlers this year, he has a good IQ,” said PDS head coach Burroughs. “He is still learning to play the position. He has a good feel for the game and a good skill set. I am excited to see him grow this season.”

Jennings grew into an exciting performer, leading the Panthers with 213 points and adding 73 rebounds, 20 assists, and a team-high 35 steals.

“Gary found a way to put the ball in the basket, he has a knack of finding ways to score,” said Burroughs. “He was a guy that was thrown into that point guard role. He had some good games and some bad games, which was expected. Offensively he did some great things. For him, it is just growing and developing the other aspects of the game, making plays for his teammates, handling pressure — the things that come with being a primary ball handler at the high school level.”

The growth Jennings displayed as he triggered the PDS offense makes him the pick as the top boy newcomer.

Top Coaches

After going 14-0 on the way to winning the Mercer County championship meet and New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Group B state title in 2022-23, the Princeton High girls’ swimming team was primed to make more history this winter.

“You always feel that there is this target on your back, before it was within the county and now I feel like it is more statewide,” said PHS head coach Carly (Misiewicz) Fackler. “I feel like we thrive in those situations. They have said multiple times that they want nothing more than to repeat this year. They got a taste of it last year, but they are ready for some more again.”

Fackler knew it would take a daily commitment from her swimmers to reach those heights again.

“It is taking it meet by meet and week by week,” said Fackler. “They have that end goal in mind but understand also that they we have to accomplish
x, y, z before we can even get to that point. I love that the end goal is there and I want it to be there. I think it is very realistic, very achievable and it is very possible. Especially with the way that counties and the postseason brings something different out of them than the regular season. They rise to the occasion.”

The Tigers rose to the occasion, going 11-0 in regular season meets and rolling to third straight country crown, piling up a winning score of 359 points, more than doubling second-place finisher WW/P-South who came in at 156.

Heading into the state tournament, PHS defeated WW/P-South 120-50 in the NJSIAA Central Group B sectional semis and then topped Manasquan 96-69 in the sectional final. The Tigers then defeated Shane 106-64 in the Group B state semis to set up a state final rematch with fellow undefeated powerhouse Chatham.

“We were converging to the point that we knew were probably going to meet again at this point,” said Fackler, reflecting on the matchup against Chatham. “Every race, every set, every warm up, warm down in practice is geared towards moments like this.”

The championship clash produced a number of tense moments as the foes were tied at 23-23 after the 200-yard individual medley with PHS pulling ahead 40-38 after the 100 butterfly but then finding itself trailing 75-65 after the 100 backstroke. The Tigers narrowed the gap to 79-77 entering the 400 free relay, the final event. PHS took second and fourth in the relay to fall 89-81 and end the winter at 14-1.

While the Tigers fell just short of a second straight state  crown, Fackler was proud of how her swimmers barreled to the end.

“We kept our season going as long as possible, we swam our hearts out,” said Fackler. “I don’t think that there was any race that I would look back on and say coulda, shoulda, woulda.”

For guiding PHS to another historic season and a return trip to the state final, Fackler is the pick as the top coach of a girls’ team.

Coming into this winter, Jess Monzo was confident his Princeton High wrestling program could continue its recent ascent.

In the early going, PHS took its lumps, going 9-8 as it headed into the Mercer County Tournament in last January with losses to such Colonial Valley Conference foes as Hightstown, Hopewell Valley, Allentown, Notre Dame, and Robbinsville.

Showing their quality and mettle, the Tigers took third at the Mercer County Tournament as they won three individual titles with Blase Mele prevailing at 138 pounds, Cole Rose at 126, and Kwabena Afrifah at 285.

“Overall I’m very pleased with the way we performed,” said PHS head coach Monzo. “As a program, it’s a good thing. We took some bad losses this year to some of these Mercer County schools, so to come back and outshine them at the county level when everyone is here to show the rest of the county where we really are was good.”

Weeks later, PHS produced another good performance as it took fourth at the NJSIAA District 17 tournament as Danny Monga (120 pounds),  Cole Rose (126), Blasé Mele (138), Christian Paul (157), and Kwabena Afrifah (285) advanced to Region 5 competition.

“I don’t know the last time Princeton has brought five. We haven’t brought five to the regions since I’ve been here,” added Monzo, whose squad went 11-13 in dual match competition and fell to Hightstown in the Central Jersey Group 4 quarterfinals in the NJSIAA team tournament.

“We’re moving in the right direction. Every year we’re getting a little better, we’re getting a little more competitive. Our younger guys are really starting to like it and wrestle more. When some of these guys first came in, they weren’t doing any offseason wrestling and offseason training. Now they’re looking for the next time to get back on the mat, which is tremendous. It says a lot about who they are as people too. They’re not just doing it to put it on their resume. They’re doing it because they’re starting to like, they’re starting to love it, they’re starting to live it. It’s tremendous.”

PHS ended up bringing one guy to the state championships in Mele. The junior star went on the finish sixth at 138 to make the podium and put the finishing touch on a superb campaign for the Tigers.

“We’re hoping this medal can really jumpstart our program again,” said Monzo. “If you look back at all the girls we’ve had too, we were fortunate to have Chloe [Ayres] come through the program, to have Ava [Rose] (the older sister of current PHS star Cole Rose) come through, and the two years prior to Chloe, Alec Bobchin placed. Whether it’s been a boy or a girl those last seven or eight years we’ve had someone standing on a podium somewhere with a medal. It’s great. Not too many programs can say that, and those programs that can are very good. It’s our turn to start building, building to that powerhouse that Princeton can be.”

For his role in getting the PHS program jumping up the ladder of N.J. wrestling, Monzo is the choice as the top coach of a boys’ squad.