If a high school athletic program is fortunate enough to have one of its teams win a Tournament of Champions title during the school year it is certainly reason to celebrate.
And if a school manages to win a second, that would be all the more reason to celebrate. But how about winning two in the same season? And then add to that a state championship, a sectional championship and a handful of conference championships and you’ve got the 2018-2019 school year for the athletic program at Montgomery High School.
“It’s great to sit back and watch and be a part of it,” Montgomery High athletic director Chris Penna said. “I enjoy working with the kids and the coaches and I am happy for the success that they achieve.”
This past spring season the Cougars emerged as the Tournament of Champions winners in boys’ tennis and girls’ golf, while also winning the Group 4 state title in boys lacrosse. The tennis team completed an undefeated season that included three wins over Newark Academy, including a 3-2 win on the TOC final.
“It was enjoyable,” Penna said of the spring season. “I think the expectations for tennis and probably golf were strong to make it to that level. Tennis, we knew it was probably going to be us and Newark Academy again. After looking at how things broke in the Delbarton and Newark Academy tournaments it was always us and them. To beat a team like that three times in a row is amazing.
“Being there for the Tournament of Champions final and having it come down to the second singles match and our kid (Eric Li) playing with a bad back and going three sets and winning the way he did in the third set was epic in a way, He willed himself through every game in that set. Coming in as a freshman and overcoming adversity, he didn’t let emotion come over him and for him that was great.”
The girls’ golf team came into the TOC hoping it could win a title and did. It helped that the Cougars were at full strength after having some pieces missing from the lineup at the sectional tournament.
“We finished second at sectionals,” said Penna, who is completing his first full year as the Cougars’ athletic director. “We were short a person because of AP testing but we still qualified. And then to go and play in pretty tough conditions that day it was good. The day was wet and windy but I think Jen (Jones, the Cougars’ coach) knew when she had everyone and was at full speed she had a good group.”
The boys’ lacrosse team had lost to Hunterdon Central during the regular season. but came back and beat the Red Devils, 11-8, in the Group 4 final after defeating Lenape to win the South Jersey Group 4 title.
“Boys lacrosse we knew we had a solid group of kids returning,” Penna said. “We had a new coach, but with Gil (Swenson) being on board last year as an assistant we felt confident. He surrounded himself with an amazing staff with Bob Curcio and Anthony Terranova. Gil was able to handle the defense and Anthony the offense. Just having the staff that he had allows other coaches input.
“The writing was there to see Lenape in the sectional final again. It seems to happen every year. It was a good group of seniors and underclassmen as well. Beating Hunterdon Central was huge because they beat us in the regular season. We graduate six so I think expectations are high right now for next year.”
In the spring season the softball team reached the Central Jersey Group 4 final, while the track and field team had six athletes advance to the Meet of Champions.
The highlights of the winter season included the boys basketball team emerging with a division championship, as well as the fencing team winning state squad titles in girls epee and boys foil. The girls track team also won a sectional championship. In the fall, freshman cross country runner Caroline Mehlhorn finished fifth at the Meet of Champions after winning the Somerset County and Central Jersey, Group IV meets earlier in the season.
“Boys basketball won the conference by beating Rutgers Prep twice and that was a huge accomplishment,” Penna said. “Kris (Grundy) enjoyed the ride with their 11 seniors. To be able to do that an build for two or three years for those guys was special.
“Softball got to sectional final. You go back and you’re one strike away from winning it. We ran into a Hightstown team that had multiple walk-off wins and they rode the momentum.”
For the Cougars, the year as a whole was full of accomplishments. It also continued a trend of success for the program overall.
“We have a veteran coaching staff and that is invaluable, it really is,” Penna said. “Expectations go from the seniors all the way down to the middle school. And also, we have a great rapport with our youth and feeder programs. We invite them to games. We run the camps through the recreation programs. The kids in third or fourth grade who are swimming in our pool or are in our gym for camps they see the M on the court or field and the commitment and expectations of the coaches and that is invaluable.”
And in the end helps lead to the sort of overall success the Cougars enjoyed this past school year.