PHS boys win third straight county swim crown

Little Tigers edge WW-P South on fast day

By: Justin Feil
   LAWRENCE — The Princeton High boys’ swimming team entered the Mercer County Championships as the two-time defending champions, but it didn’t feel like the favorites to win it, even after securing the top seeds in seven events in Friday’s preliminaries.
   If the seedings had remained after Saturday’s finals as they were after the preliminaries, the Little Tigers actually would have lost by six points. Instead, Jessie Applegate and Pete Hand each held their top spots to win two individual events apiece and the Little Tigers’ supporting cast improved in enough events to put PHS in position to win it in the final 400 free relay.
   In the meet’s final event, it took a school record 3:45.93 from Billy Boyce, Anson Hook, Hand and Applegate for PHS to secure its third relay of the meet and third straight MCC title, 231-223, over runner-up West Windsor-Plainsboro High South.
   "We didn’t know if we could pull it out," said Hand, who won the 200 individual medley and the 100 breaststroke. "Coming into the last relay, we knew we were up by two points. If we win it, we win and if we lose it, we lose."
   PHS pulled out the win, and though there were the big guns like Hand and Applegate up front, there were plenty of Little Tigers who contributed to the win. Without some of them, the Little Tigers might have been in a different position going into the final relay, and it might have been a different outcome.
   "We were a little more confident with the lead," said Hand, whose individual county golds were the first of his career. "We knew it would take a big effort. We were just looking to win the event. We didn’t even know it was a record until (Saturday) night. Everyone gave their best."
   It made for a thrilling end to the county championships, and at least as thrilling a win for the Little Tigers as each of the past two seasons.
   "It’s always satisfying to win the county meet," Hand said. "This was even more special because it came down to the last event. All the guys had to give us big efforts to get us where we got."
   "Winning the first one after not having won one, that made the first one a great thrill," added Hand’s father, Greg, the PHS head coach. "This weekend’s meet was the most exciting because it was so close throughout. Our strengths and West Windsor’s strengths were so different. They really packed some events."
   After Princeton won the 200 free relay and the Pirates finished third, WW-P South was able to trim into the Little Tigers’ lead in the next two events. The Pirates had three swimmers among the top 12 in the 100 back and Quentin Walsh finished second. PHS had none in the event. The Little Tigers had the winner in Hand in the 100 breast, but South countered with Dan Le, who finished second to Hand, and Mike Carman, who was fifth to cut it the PHS lead to two points going into the final.
   "It was close from the start," said the elder Hand. "It was close enough that either team could have won. I’m proud that the guys swam as well as they did this weekend."
   It started well with a victory in the 200 medley relay before Hand won the 200 IM and Devin White was fourth. Jessie Applegate won the 50 free and Anson Hook and Tom McKinley tied for third place, but South had two swimmers in the 100 butterfly final while the Little Tigers countered with just White in the consolation fly. Applegate won the 100 free before Andrew Ferguson and Joe Carroll swam in the 500 free consolations. A win in the 200 free relay set up the final three pressured-packed events.
   "We were first seeded in three relays and four individual events," Greg Hand said. "Other guys scattered throughout the lineup helped. We had key swims from Devin White in the IM and fly. Anson Hook bettered his times in the 50 and 100 in both days. He and Tom tied, and we’ll never see that again — a tie in prelims and finals. It was a good thing they both were able to swim faster. The rest of the group did well also.
   "Billy Boyce was just plain exhausted by the time it got to the 400 relay, and he was able to swim a converted 53.18, which is terrific for him, in a situation where we really needed it. Andrew Ferguson did a great job in the 200 swimming a 1:55. Both he and Joe Carroll did a good job in the 500. We had a good finals day after a pretty good set-up day. I didn’t have a sense we’d swum our fastest yet (after Friday), but I had a sense it would be neck and neck."
   In the final event, the Little Tigers stretched their necks just a bit farther to defend their title, though the Pirates were right there.
   "We came up a little short," said WW-P South head coach Paul Hamnett. "They had a really good meet. I think they would have benefited from an extra day, but it was the same for everybody. Quentin Walsh broke the high school’s back record. We had a lot of kids make a lot of progress."
   PHS’ and South’s swimmers weren’t the only ones standing out on center stage Saturday. West Windsor-Plainsboro North’s Larry Rosa highlighted the Knights’ sixth-place finish by winning the 200 free and the 500 free to earn the meet’s Most Outstanding Male Swimmer. Rosa was almost four seconds ahead of South’s Walsh to win the 200 free, and he set a new meet record of 5:03.40 to win the 500 handily.
   "I knew there was a chance," said Rosa, who broke the one-year-old mark set by Princeton Day School’s Stefan Hirniak last winter. "It depended on how I felt. If you can take it out feeling smooth but you’re still going fast you have a chance. You don’t know until you touch."
   Rosa is a senior, a club swimmer for Eastern Express, in his first year with the Knights. He’ll attend Rutgers University next fall on a swimming scholarship with a Mercer County record in hand. Even he was surprised to see that he’d bettered Hirniak’s 5:07.50 by that much.
   "I was kind of surprised," Rosa said. "It’s definitely faster than I thought it’d be. I was happy with my (200) time. That gave me some confidence for the 500."
   Hun, which was led by Nick Vacca’s sixth-place finish in the 200 IM, finished ninth in a final test run before the Prep A championships today and Wednesday at Lawrenceville.
   "Almost every single swimmer that swam in the county meet did their best times," said Hun head coach Madeline Jones. "It’s a combination of both (good competition and the culmination of the season). They got really psyched up for it. The practices this week were geared to get them ready for this situation."
   It was a pressure-packed situation, one that the Princeton High boys’ swimming team had not faced in nearly the same way in winning the last two Mercer County Championships, and the Little Tigers came through in for a third straight crown.