Author Archives: Kevin Whitaker

Tiger of the Week: Mike Brennan ’94, Big Dance Bound

Mike Brennan ’94 celebrated with his team in Boston March 12. (Courtesy American University Athletics Communications)

Mike Brennan ’94 celebrated with his team in Boston March 12. (Courtesy American University Athletics Communications)

Of the seven Princeton alumni who are Division I men’s basketball head coaches, only one will appear in the NCAA tournament this week — the group’s newest member, Mike Brennan ’94. After spending four years as a Georgetown assistant coach under John Thompson III ’88, Brennan was hired by American for the 2013-14 season, guiding the Eagles to an expectations-defying 20-12 record. Last Wednesday, American won the Patriot League Tournament with a 55-36 victory at Boston University, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Eagles were given a No. 15-seed when the brackets were revealed Sunday; they will face No. 2-seed Wisconsin on Thursday at 12:40 p.m. ET. Continue reading

Princeton men’s golf finishes strong at NCAA Regional

For five members of the men’s golf team, Princeton’s spring finals period began 2,500 miles away from campus. As those Tigers traveled to the NCAA Regional last week in Pullman, Wash., they studied on the plane; after the completion of Thursday’s first round, many of them sat down in their hotel’s conference room to take exams. “It’s been busy,” said Greg Jarmas ’14, who didn’t have to take any tests during the tournament — but finished three take-home exams the following day.

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Greg Jarmas ’14 (Photo: Courtesy Office of Athletic Communications)

The quintet in Pullman certainly had better study breaks than the rest of their classmates, however, teeing it up on Washington State’s Palouse Ridge Golf Club for Princeton’s first postseason appearance since 2006. Playing in a field that included No. 1-ranked California and three other top-25 teams, Princeton finished 13th of 14 qualifiers, closing its most successful season in several years.

Only the top five teams advanced to the national championships, which will be held next week in Atlanta; it would have been a massive surprise if the Tigers had been among them, as no Ivy League school has reached the NCAA finals since 1984 and none of this year’s 30 qualifiers are from the Northeast. Any hopes Princeton had were dashed on Thursday, as the top contenders opened with a bang: USC’s Seth Smith set the course record with a 10-under-par 62, and two other teams set school records. More than half the field shot better than par, but Bernie D’Amato ’13 was the only Tiger in red numbers. After one round Princeton was 27 shots off of the lead.

The Tigers performed better in Friday’s windy conditions despite posting a slightly worse aggregate score, as the tournament average was three strokes per player worse than Thursday’s birdie-fest. One of the exceptions to that trend was Jarmas, who recovered from an opening-round 75 to shoot a four-under-par 68 on Friday; only two players scored better in round two. Jarmas, who said some of his drives approached 400 yards on the firm fairways when the wind was at his back, finished the three-day tournament at minus-1, tied for 30th overall.

Princeton saved its best for last, shooting a two-over-par 290 on Saturday, the eighth-best team score of the final round. After a season in which the Tigers placed in the top five six times and won two tournaments — including their 24th Ivy League title — they were glad to end on a positive note.

“I couldn’t really ask for anything more from these guys,” Jarmas said. “We accomplished our main goal of winning the Ivy championship. We didn’t get off to best start here Thursday, but the way we bounced back in the second and third rounds is emblematic of the character we had this season. It’s kind of sad to see it end, but it was a great season, start to finish.”

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With fifth-place finish, women’s water polo turns heads at NCAAs

Twelve months ago, the women’s water polo team was ranked No. 10 nationally and earned the sixth seed at NCAA Championships, where it took on a California power in the first round. As a clear underdog against No. 3-seed USC, Princeton fell behind 6-1 at halftime before losing 14-2.

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Goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson ’16, left, set an NCAA Tournament record with 38 saves. Utility Katie Rigler ’14 was named to the All-Tournament second team. (Photos: Courtesy Office of Athletic Communications)

Last weekend, the Tigers returned to NCAAs as the sixth seed, again with a No. 10 national ranking, and they again faced a third-seeded West Coast powerhouse. Princeton again fell behind at halftime, 6-2 — and that’s where the similarities ended. Instead of succumbing to another second-half blowout, Princeton allowed only two goals after intermission and scared UCLA with a late rally before falling 8-6.

Head coach Luis Nicolao said he felt this year’s team entered with a different attitude than the one that made its NCAA debut in 2012. “We’re more experienced and deeper,” he said. “Other than three or four bad minutes in the second quarter, we played really well.”

A two-goal loss may not sound like a big deal, but in this case, it was practically historic — it marked the closest any East Coast school has come to knocking off a California team in the first round of NCAAs (the previous best was Indiana’s 8-5 loss to UCLA in 2011). In a sport dominated by only a handful of schools — UCLA, USC, and Stanford have combined to win all 13 national titles, and the runner-up has come from that trio 11 times — Friday’s game indicates that the rest of the nation, and the East Coast in particular, may be catching up.

Many eyes were on Ashleigh Johnson ’16 in her NCAA Championships debut, and she delivered in a big way. A highly touted recruit who turned down offers from several of the California powers, Johnson made nine saves to keep the Tigers close against UCLA — and followed with 15 saves against two goals in a rout of Iona, then 14 saves in a 12-10 overtime win over fifth-seeded San Diego State that secured fifth place.

Johnson’s total of 38 saves broke the tournament record of 36, set by Loyola Marymount’s Rachel Riddell in 2005. Not a bad showing for a rookie.

“She had a great weekend,” Nicolao said. “She allows you to do so much on defense … she’s an intimidating force for opponents.”

Johnson made several big saves down the stretch of Sunday’s fifth-place game, including a tough one to her right side that preserved a 10-10 tie with 1:30 left, but Princeton’s field defense in front of her played an equally important role. Several steals helped the Tigers hold San Diego Sate scoreless for the final 11-and-a-half minutes of play, allowing Princeton to come back from a 10-7 deficit to win in overtime. Jessie Holechek ’15 scored both of the Tigers’ goals in extra time.

After finishing sixth in 2012 and fifth this year, the Tigers can dream of improving even further and doing what no East Coast team has done before — beating one of the three California powerhouses at NCAAs — especially with most of their core returning next season. Getting back to the tournament is no guarantee (Princeton needed overtime to escape the Eastern semifinals in each of the last two seasons), but if they do so, no opponent will feel comfortable with Johnson in the cage.

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Distance dominance leads Princeton to men’s track and field title

At the indoor Heptagonal Championships in February, the Ivy League title came down to the wire. After Princeton mounted a furious second-day rally to erase a 45-point deficit, the lead changed hands twice in the final three races before Cornell edged Princeton by one point, snapping the Tigers’ string of seven straight Heps titles across the track and cross-country seasons.

Last weekend’s outdoor championships featured another Princeton comeback — but not as much drama. After trailing the Big Red by 24 points midway through Sunday’s finals, the Tigers dominated the late events to cruise past their chief rival, 190-162, and claim their third straight outdoor title.

Where did Princeton win the meet? When comparing the Tigers’ points with Cornell’s, one category stands out:

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In Saturday’s 10,000-meter run, Michael Franklin ’13 took first place, followed by Chris Bendtsen ’14 in second, Alejandro Arroyo Yamin ’14 in fourth and Tyler Udland ’14 in fifth, all separated by less than one second; meanwhile, Cornell had no runners in the top six scoring positions. The following afternoon, Franklin claimed another victory in the 5,000-meter run, with Bendtsen finishing third, Sam Pons ’15 fifth, and Cornell again shut out. All told, in the two distance races, Princeton outscored the Big Red 42-0 — much more than the final margin of victory.

It was no surprise that Princeton would be strong in the longest events. The Tigers have historically had a strong distance program, especially in recent years; under first-year coach Jason Vigilante, they won a third straight Heps cross-country title and posted a program-best 11th-place finish at NCAAs in the fall. Still, the degree of dominance was astounding — no team in any other event scored as many as Princeton’s 24 points in the 10,000, and only one matched the Tigers’ 18 points from the 5,000 (Harvard in the shot put).

Cornell entered as a favorite in the polls — at No. 19, it was the only Ivy League team ranked in the top 25 nationally — but Princeton matched the Big Red in most races, helping the hosts overcome Cornell’s advantage in the field events and letting the distance runners shine. Twenty-five athletes scored individual points for Princeton, and another four contributed to high-placing relays. “There’s strength in numbers, and that’s what this meet is about for us as a team,” sprinter Austin Hollimon ’13 said.

Hollimon closed hard after a sluggish start to win the 400-meter hurdles, a race he ran at the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer; he also anchored the 4×400-meter relay to a comfortable victory for his 11th career victory in an Ivy championship race. Princeton swept the standard mid-distance races, as Russell Dinkins ’13 won the 800 meters and Peter Callahan ’13 outkicked the field in the 1,500, his first race since leading the distance medley relay to an NCAA championship two months ago. In the field, Tom Hopkins ’14 won the long jump — despite passing on his final three attempts so he could compete in the 400-meter dash, in which he finished second — while Damon McLean ’14 won the triple jump a week after doing the same at Penn Relays.

Several Tigers, including Hollimon, will likely continue their seasons at the NCAA Regionals in three weeks. But for the seniors, Sunday marked their last races in the tight-knit world of Heps competition. And by avenging February’s close defeat in their home stadium, they couldn’t have gone out on a better note.

“It’s just sweetness, finishing off this way,” Hollimon said. “Everybody doesn’t get a storybook ending to their career. I get a national championship [in the DMR] and a Heps title at home, so I feel blessed for all of this.”

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Former pros discuss the road ahead for NFL draftee Catapano ’13

As a high school football player in Bayville, N.Y., Mike Catapano ’13 believed he could play in the NFL someday. He kept that goal even after choosing to attend Princeton, where only one player had been drafted in the previous two decades. And on Saturday, Catapano’s dream became reality, as he was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs with the first pick of the seventh round in the 2013 NFL Draft.

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Mike Catapano ’13, chosen in the seventh round by the Kansas City Chiefs, was Princeton’s first NFL draft pick since 2001. (Photo: Beverly Schaefer)

Catapano became the first Princetonian taken since Dennis Norman ’01 in 2001, and as the 201st overall pick, he is the Tigers’ highest selection since Jon Schultheis ’83 was the 182nd pick 30 years ago. But for Catapano, being drafted is only the beginning — now, he’ll have to show the Chiefs’ coaching staff that he deserves to play at the highest level.

The very first practices will be crucial for Catapano, especially as a late-round pick from the Ivy League. Catapano performed well in January’s East-West Shrine Game, a showcase for some of the nation’s top draft prospects, but he still hasn’t been tested as often as some peers from major conferences. “As a seventh-round pick, he’s not guaranteed anything other than his signing bonus,” said Ross Tucker ’01, who played for five NFL teams in seven seasons as an offensive lineman and now works as a pro and college football analyst. “First impressions mean a lot — he’s going to have to show that the level of competition is not too much.”

Princeton head coach Bob Surace ’90, an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2002-09, said all rookies are scrutinized carefully in their first practices, which are usually technique-oriented and conducted without pads. The most important thing a player can do to impress his new coaches, however, is to carry himself like a professional. “Mike will exceed expectations in terms of being on time, being accountable, learning the playbook and all that,” Surace said.

Catapano has already shown he has the physical skills to compete at the NFL level. At Princeton’s pro day last month, the senior bench-pressed 225 pounds 33 times and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds, both above-average marks for his position. Still, nearly all former players say the speed of the game is much faster in professional football, and it takes time to get used to that transition.

Kansas City head coach Andy Reid said he plans to use Catapano as an outside linebacker in the Chiefs’ 3-4 defense. The real change in Catapano’s role will likely be smaller than the name indicates; his primary duty will still be rushing the passer — which he did to the tune of 12.5 sacks in 10 games last season — but he may spend a little more time in pass coverage than he did in college. Still, it will be nothing compared to the positional change Catapano made after arriving at Princeton, when the high-school running back who had never played on the opposite side of the ball became a defensive lineman.

The lifestyle of a professional football player is different than that of a college athlete; with the reward of being drafted comes more practice time, more film study, and fewer off-field distractions. “You really have to approach it like a job … [but] obviously it’s a great job,” said Jon Dekker ’06, who played in three games as a Pittsburgh Steelers tight end in 2007. The transition may be even sharper for many Ivy League athletes, who face additional practice restrictions and more intense academic demands in college — but Catapano, who has spent the last two springs focusing on football and is, by all accounts, obsessed with the sport, should be in his element as a professional.

“In the NFL, you notice that while there are a lot of freak athletes, the guys that stay around the longest are the ones who are the most self-motivated and focused on improvement. Those are things that really stood out to me about Mike,” said Harry Flaherty ’11, a former teammate of Catapano’s who spent time in NFL camps as a tight end and long snapper in 2011 and ’12.

Several of Catapano’s former Ivy League foes also turned pro on Saturday. Cornell offensive lineman J.C. Tretter and Harvard tight end Kyle Juszczyk were each selected in the fourth round, giving the Ancient Eight three draftees for the first time since 2001; Penn defensive lineman Brandon Copeland, Cornell wideout Luke Tasker, and Columbia defensive end Josh Martin also signed contracts as undrafted free agents (with the latter joining Catapano in Kansas City). Those players will join an Ivy League tradition that already includes Giants guard Kevin Boothe (Cornell) and recently retired Ravens center Matt Birk (Harvard), who were starters for the last two Super Bowl champions.

“There are enough Ivy League guys that are making rosters, getting starting positions, playing at a high level and signing decent free-agent contracts, that I think more guys should be getting opportunities,” said Tucker, who was the color commentator for most Ivy League football games on NBC Sports Network last season. “It’s really cool to show that you can get an elite education … and still have an opportunity to pursue pro football.”

Update: More good news for Princeton football’s Class of 2013 — free-agent linebacker Andrew Starks signed with the Chicago Bears April 29.

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Tennis star Pecotic ’13 completes another undefeated Ivy season

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Matija Pecotic ’13 (Photo: Kevin Whitaker ’13)

The college tennis career of Matija Pecotic ’13 has been anything but ordinary. In a sport in which most top players are known commodities from the junior circuit, Pecotic is now ranked No. 7 nationally despite coming from the island of Malta — not exactly a hotbed of tennis talent — and having to send coaches his own scouting tapes. The powerful lefty was Princeton’s only recruit in the last decade not to have a page on the recruiting website tennisrecruiting.net; by the end of his freshman year, he was the Tigers’ top singles player. And before matches, Pecotic pumps himself up by listening to quotes from an unlikely muse — former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.

So it is somewhat fitting that Pecotic’s Ivy League career will end in unprecedented fashion. After going 7-0 in No. 1 singles play for the third consecutive season, the Princeton senior is all but certain to add the 2013 Ivy League Player of the Year trophy to his 2011 and 2012 hardware when the league’s honors are officially announced next week, becoming the first three-time winner in the award’s 27-year history.
“It’s tough to not think about it when you’re playing … you’re only human, and it’s on your mind,” Pecotic said of his third unbeaten season. “You play on different courts, different surfaces, different conditions — that’s probably the toughest part.”

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