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Archive for July 26, 2022

July 26, 2022 — United States Coach of the Year: Jill Thomas, Princeton (N.J.) Day School

Heading due north out of Princeton, N.J., is County Road 604. But nobody calls it that. For generations of residents, that corridor is called The Great Road.

Take a left off Great Road at the top of a rise, and you will find Princeton (N.J.) Day School, an institution which has been around since 1899.

For the last 34 years, Jill Thomas has been an fixture in the life of the school, coaching basketball, coaching and umpiring field hockey, and being the public-address announcer for football games until the sport was discontinued in 2011.

In recent years, Thomas has also coached the school’s girls’ lacrosse team. The girls’ lacrosse program has gone through a number of coaches throughout the years, including the late Kim Bedesem, Leslie Hagan, and Thomas. Throughout, the Panther team was a dominant force in private-school girls’ lacrosse in the capital region of New Jersey.

The 2022 season, however, brought a new opportunity. Princeton Day School followed a number of its sister schools and gained admission into the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body of public and some non-public schools in the state.

It also turned out that the first season of PDS’s dual membership in the NJSIAA and the New Jersey Independent Schools Athletic Association was going to be Thomas’ last as a coach, as she announced her retirement.

For her years of coaching and an unprecedent 2022 campaign, Thomas is the TopOfTheCircle.com United States Coach of the Year.

What did the Panthers do in 2022? Well, within a period of three weeks, they won the NJISAA private-school tournament with a 13-12 win over Montclair-Kimberley Academy (N.J.), then won four win-or-go-home games in the NJSIAA Non-Public “B” tournament, culminating in a 17-11 win over Absecon Holy Spirit (N.J.).

Three days later, Thomas’ career ended with a 14-9 defeat to Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.) in the final NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, but the Panthers were able do match what Oak Knoll has done in recent years — win the private/public school double for the Garden State.

In addition, PDS became the first girls’ lacrosse team from Mercer County to win a public-school state championship since the spring of 1985.

All the while, Thomas did it with her usual combination of hard work and humility. In what has become a Score-O decade in both field hockey and lacrosse, Thomas held fast to the principle that a field hockey team shouldn’t score more than five goals in a game, or win more than a certain amount in a girls’ lacrosse game.

And yet, throughout the years, Thomas has racked up win after win after win on the court and on the turf. It’s estimated that she has more than 600 wins in a coaching career that began in 1988.

When it comes to coaching, the year 1988 has a significance: it was when The Lawrenceville (N.J.) School started admitting girls, and immediately became a rival for Princeton Day School and the other private schools in the capital region.

It always seemed as though when a Thomas-coached team played Lawrenceville, the game became more than just a game. It was an occasion, and a mission.

But if there is one game I’ll always remember Thomas for, it was in another sport: field hockey. It was in 1996 when PDS took on the reigning NJSIAA Group IV champions in Flemington Hunterdon Central (N.J.). Despite the fact that PDS has one-sixth enrollment of Hunterdon Central, the Panther eleven played even up with Central for 60 minutes, coming away with a 0-0 draw.

In terms of small vs. large schools, this was a definite lesson for anyone watching or participating in this intersectional contest.

Jill Thomas taught a lot of lessons to her students and to observers for a third of a century. The girls’ lacrosse universe in central New Jersey is going to be lessened with her retirement.


ALSO CONSIDERED:

Allie Ferrera, Morristown (N.J.): Steered the Colonials through a murderous North Jersey Group IV bracket and won the state championship in the group. Only losses were to national powers Oak Knoll, Summit, and Chatham

Mary Gagnon, Brooklandville St. Paul’s School for Girls (Md.): It wasn’t the fact that the Gators were able to come out of the COVID years a winner in 2022, it’s just the fact that the team has had great and consistent winning form in the country’s finest lacrosse conference

Becky Groves, Sykesville Century (Md.): Steered the Knights to a state championship and the second unbeaten season in program history. Century handled Parkton Hereford (Md.) 15-6 to win the Class 2A state championship.

John Kroah, Massilon Jackson (Ohio): Came close to winning a first state championship against established powers

Savannah Porter, Canton Creekview (Ga.): Almost upended an established power, Milton (Ga.) in the state final, but lost a late lead

Laura Sandbloom, Denver Colorado Academy (Colo.): In her final year as head coach, she was able to best Highlands Ranch Valor Christian (Colo.) 13-9 in the Class 5A final for the team’s seventh straight championship

Olivia Smart, Huntington Beach Edison (Calif.): In five years, this team has become a true contender for postseason honors. Edison won its first Sunset League title and qualified for the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section Division 1 Tournament

Paige Walton, Glenelg (Md.) Country School: The veteran coach has won titles at the IAAM “C” Division and the “B” Division, and made a memorable run at a first “A” Division championship

Kristin Woods, New Canaan (Conn.): Playing a tough league schedule, the Rams were able to get past county rival Darien (Conn.) when it counted, the state championship final after each team split previous matches