PRINCETON: Experience helps PHS volleyball to fast start

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By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor
Now in its fifth full season as a program, the Princeton High girls’ volleyball team has raised the bar as far as expectations are concerned.
“Now it will be defending the (West Jersey Interscholastic Volleyball League) title and that championship match will be at Rider University this year,” Princeton coach Patty Manhart said of the Little Tigers’ top goal for the season. “That should be a lot of fun if we can get there because it is a bigger arena for the girls and will be exciting and fun to be able to play in that environment. We made it there last year. We got a lower seed in the states last and were knocked out in the first round. This year we would like to make it further.”
Princeton went 17-5 last year, winning the WJLVL as the No. 4 seed before losing to Clifton in opening round of the state tournament. This year the Little Tigers are off to a quick start, improving to 5-0 with a 25-9, 25-17 win over Notre Dame on Wednesday. The Little Tigers were coming off a 25-14, 25-13 victory over Lawrenceville on Tuesday after having posted a 25-19, 25-10 triumph over West Windsor-Plainsboro North on Monday.
“It has been a good start to the season,” said Manhart, whose team is scheduled to play at West Windsor-Plainsboro South on Friday. “The first match we were unsure because we had not played East Brunswick before and I didn’t have my usual starting setter. But starting with that win helped build the girls’ confidence. It has been a nice start.”
Now in its fifth season as a program, Princeton is reaping the benefits of the players coming to the varsity level with more experience.
“The biggest difference is we have girls on the JV team training with a JV coach and getting ready to come up to the varsity,” said Manhart, who played college volleyball at Fairleigh Dickinson. “Now when they get to the varsity it is not their first time playing the sport. It has gotten more and more popular with the girls who have fallen in love with the sport and keep up with it. We have a couple of girls who are playing club volleyball and they really love the sport.”
Princeton has a veteran lineup this season, with six starters returning from last year’s successful team. Outside hitters Anna Cao and Kim Cheng return, as well as middle hitter Sara Vigiano, libero Natalia Drobnjak, setter Rachel Cheng and opposite Gillian Hauschild. The newcomer to the starting lineup is middle Julia Brown.
“I think everyone who is out there contributes something and is good at their job,” Manhart said. “With Natalia setting this year instead of Rachel, it spreads it out nicely and we’re  having a lot of people contribute.”
Against Lawrenceville, Rachel Cheng recorded12 assists, while Drobnjak collected 10 digs. Cao registered four aces and four kills in the victory. In the victory over West Windsor-Plainsboro North, Rachel Cheng produced three aces and 12 assists, while Hauschild  finished with six kills and Drobnjak had four digs. Overall, Princeton appears to be a team that does not need to rely on just one or two players but is strong because of the sum of its parts.
This year the schedule has been beefed up to include some regular season matches against more established programs, Manhart is hopeful the tougher schedule will be a benefit when it comes time for state tournament seeding.
“It’s hard because we don’t see all the Group 4 teams, so they go with strength of schedule, which is sort of historical seeding based on how established teams are,” said Manhart, whose team was a No. 20 seed in the Group 4 state tournament last year. “So having Group 4 teams on the schedule will help. We have East Brunswick and Hillsborough, so hopefully we have success against those teams and that will help.
With a roster full of experience, Princeton hopes this season is its best yet.
“I think Anna Cao had said when the season started we felt like we never left,” Manhart said. “Having the ability to pick up where we left off has really helped us.”