If Charlie Gallagher needed to know anything more about the character of his Princeton High football team, it was on full display last Friday night.
Princeton has had its share of ups and downs - mostly downs - this season.
But every week the Little Tigers come out ready to play.
One week after dropping a 44-0 decision to Lawrence, Princeton responded with a come-from-behind 22-19 victory over West Windsor-Plainsboro before a large Homecoming Night crowd at PHS.
Princeton has now won two out of its last three since snapping a 21-game losing streak with a victory over Cherry Hill East.
“I would like to think that the train is back on the tracks,” said Gallagher, whose team will play at Hopewell Valley tonight. “Maybe we are getting a little push. Maybe we are getting on a roll. West Windsor is a good football team. Coach (Jeff) Reilly has a great staff over there. They’ve got a lot of players over there. They have a lot of athletes.”
Princeton may not be as deep as other teams it faces, but the Little Tigers have as much heart as any team that takes the field. After jumping to a quick 7-0 lead when Steve Hennessy returned the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown, Princeton found itself in a 19-7 hole after WW-P scored on three of its first four possessions. But the Little Tigers buckled down, chipped away at the lead and eventually came away with a win.
Following the team’s post-game talk with the coaches, each player slammed a tennis ball to the ground creating a shower of tennis balls.
“This team has a lot of heart,” senior captain Connor Coffee said. “We come out every game and we play hard every game. Coach (Jim) Meert had the idea with the tennis balls. He said what does a tennis ball do? It bounces back. That’s what we do as a team. We bounce back. We have had some tough losses this year but we always bounce back.”
The 2-4 Little Tigers have been outscored, 193-0, in their four losses. But after falling into a 19-7 deficit against WW-P, Princeton did not allow another point. The lead was cut to 19-13 on a 2-yard touchdown run by Jaylen Johnson in the second quarter. In the third quarter, Princeton took the lead when Johnson romped into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown run. The Little Tigers added two more points with a safety.
“I saw grass and no one was stopping me,” Johnson said of the go-ahead touchdown. I got wrapped up and I had to get to the goal line and i got in. I can’t stop until I get into that end zone. We told ourselves at halftime that we wouldn’t give up and we didn’t give up.”
Princeton had plenty of heroes in the victory.
In addition to the kick return for a touchdown, Hennessy had an interception and a fumble recovery. Johnson ran for 74 and a pair of touchdowns. And the defense simply shut down WW-P in the second half.
“Coach (Larry) Szabo, our defensive coordinator, is doing a phenomenal job,” Gallagher said. “A lot of people thought he was crazy because he was playing a lot of man defense against some really good athletes. The whole idea was that we are going to put pressure on that quarterback as quickly as we can. Hennseeey made a nice interception. He did a great job.
“All those guys along the defensive line did a great job. I tip my hat to the guys we have that go both ways. Guys like Connor Coffee, Jaylen, Tommy Tenzlinger, Jay (Jackson), Judd Petrone, Evan Angelucci, Stevie (Hennessy). Those guys don’t come off the field. We have a slew of athletes who just don’t come off the field. Dylan Angelucci isn’t a big guy but he’s tough and he just battles.
“Jaylen Johnson is really is a workhorse. He plays on the defensive line and he’s a running back for us. We are relying on that guy to move the ball. He’ll get three or four yards and then he surprises you. The next thing you know he has a 15-yard gain.”
The victory has the Little Tigers in a positive frame of mind as they get set to take on Hopewell Valley.
“We just play hard, no matter who we are playing,” said Coffee, who plays on both the offensive and defensive lines. “We have a lot of guys playing both ways and we just fight. And we bounce back, like with the tennis balls. That’s just what we do as a team. We support each other and getting a win like this feels great.”
Added Gallagher: “We are going to be playing a tough Hopewell team. We haven’t played Hopewell in a long time. We have a nice little rivalry. West Windsor is a nice little rivalry. I think Lawrence is a nice little rivalry. We have got a great group of football teams that we can play and we think we can compete against.
“Next week the Bulldogs are tough. We need to have a great week of practice and build on it. The morale and the spirit we had tonight, especially at Homecoming, we talked about school spirit. It was alive and well tonight at PHS.”
For a team that had been shut out three straight times to open the season, the Little Tigers have shown their character over the last three weeks.
“This one means a lot,” Johnson said. “It is our first win at Homecoming since four years ago. It means a lot to us and the culture of Princeton High School.”