Gray matters as Princeton girls’ team claims Central Jersey B championship

By: Bob Nuse
   NORTH BRUNSWICK —The improvement has been there from year to year for the Princeton High girls’ swim team. And after a couple years of coming close, this year the improvement resulted in a the Little Tigers’ first sectional championship in 10 years.
   "We’ve gotten a lot better," said Princeton senior Kristin Gray, a Cranbury resident who won the 100 butterfly and was third in the 200 individual medley as the Little Tigers topped Rumson-Fair Haven, 90-80, on Tuesday to win the Central Jersey B Division championship. "My freshman year we didn’t even make the states and then sophomore and junior year we lost in the first or second round. We were able to turn it around this year and that was awesome.
   "It’s a real good experience for us. I know we’ve been working for this for a real long time, so it’s great to finally be able to do it. It was really exciting. We hadn’t done this with the girls’ team since 1994. And we had not been able to beat Rumson, so that was very nice."
   Princeton, which improved to 8-3 with the win, seems to be peaking at just the right time this season. The Little Tigers returned many of the swimmers from last year’s team, but we also aided by the addition of some talented newcomers into the fold.
   "I think we’re a better team because we are more experienced and older," said Princeton coach Greg Hand, whose team was scheduled to face Moorestown in the state B semifinals on Thursday. "We added a couple of new pieces that gave us some added quality and perhaps because of that we put together a better season. I thought our team composition was very good and this year the spirit level was even higher.
   "I think that helped motivate the team towards reaching its potential. There was a special feeling this year."
   The Little Tigers returned their No. 1 weapon from a year ago, sophomore Nina Rossi. And this year she was supplemented with other talented swimmers to make Princeton a championship team. Rossi won the 200 IM and 50 free on Tuesday, while Gray was the only other individual winner. But the Little Tigers won all three relays and used their depth to earn the win.
   "Definitely, having Nina Rossi is a big factor," Gray said. "But we have a great group of kids this year. At the beginning of the year we never really expected this. But there was more of a commitment and everyone worked so hard. I never dreamed we’d be able to do this. We’ve really come so far.
   "Our relays were awesome. Everyone swam really well."
   That was the biggest factor in Princeton winning a title this year. The Little Tigers are a team that can always count on a number of swimmers doing well, which makes them tough to beat.
   "Over the last couple of meets a number of girls have taken big steps forward," said Hand, whose team with a win on Thursday would face either Montgomery or Mountain Lakes in the state B final on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. at The College of New Jersey.
   "Melissa (Carduner of Cranbury) is one of them," the coach continued. "She had a goal of going under 27 in the 50 free and she made it just at a time when we needed her to do it the most and finished second. And her finish in the backstroke was great. She finished in a way I have never seen her finish before. She raced with a sense of confidence that we hadn’t seen before. Perhaps she was able to deal with the fatigue factor better than she had before.
   "Hannah Gursky is another swimmer who has taken a big step. She swam a great 500 free, going under six minutes for the second time this year. Gabby Cifuentes also had a real good meet. We’ve had a number of people come along at just the right time."
   All-in-all, it meant that improving Princeton is now champion Princeton.
   "I never get the sense that something all of a sudden just comes together," Hand said. "I just think a team comes as close as possible to performing at the best level it can and you see where that takes you. This is a team that has grown over the years and this year. I think they started to believe in themselves a little more."
   "I just feel that we swam a really good meet. I didn’t sense us striving for anything in particular. We just swam well."