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Tigers’ Cooper Nowak drives to the rim against his opponent from Monticello during the Jan. 7 contest.  

In Princeton boys basketball Head Coach, Brett Cloutier’s tenure coaching the Tigers, he had never missed the opportunity to man the team, having a perfect attendance record.

Unfortunately, that streak came to an end on Jan. 4, against Sartell-St. Stephen, as Cloutier was sidelined due to health and safety protocols, with Princeton being forced to be captained by a new face.

“It was a unique situation, not something that I foresaw happening this year but it was one of those things where we have constantly told our guys that if they don’t feel well, stay home and if you think you are sick, go get a test. As an educator and as one of the adults in the room, I knew it was my responsibility to go do what I had asked of our guys,” said Cloutier.

With Cloutier out for both games last week, along with assistant coach Nick Nowak also being sidelined junior varsity coach, Aaron Romportl, was thrust into the position of head coach for Princeton.

Going against two tough opponents with Sartell-St. Stephen on Jan. 4, followed by the Mississippi 8 opener on Jan. 7, with a trip to Monticello presenting itself, the Tigers overcame the absence of their head coach, with Romportl helping coach the team to two victories.

Princeton opened with an 87-85 win over the Sabres, before knocking off Monticello by a 68-65 score.

Picking up the two wins, Romportl credited the leadership of the Tigers’ upperclassmen as a big key to victories. “One of the great things about stepping in to be the head coach of this team in a game was that we have such great leadership in our upperclassmen. They take care of a lot of decisions and self-manage themselves in a high manner, even on the bench. Having those upperclassmen run and being self-led, that makes a coach’s job a lot easier,” he said.

One of those upperclassman in junior shooting guard, Cooper Drews, felt that Romportl deserved some credit as well for being thrust into the tough position and helping the team stay undefeated. “Coach Romportl also deserves a lot of credit, I think he did a good job stepping in and getting us two wins,” said Drews.

Opening Romportl’s duty as head coach, a tough foe came to the Tigers’ gym in Sartell-St. Stephen, a 7-1 Class AAAA opponent and a team that Romportl had been a part of the coaching staff for in the past.

Seeing some of the old faces he had helped coach during his time working with the Sabres, now coaching against with a varsity game on the line was an experience for Romportl. “I got to see a lot of familiar faces. It was quite an awe-inspring moment for me to look over there and see a lot of the kids I got to work with when they were younger, now competing against us,” he said.

Putting that aside, in the back and forth affair against the Sabres, Princeton would battle ahead before Sartell would answer with a run of their own to cut into the lead. “We would go up by 10-12 points but then they would fight their way back,” said Romportl.

The highly-competitive, high scoring opening half found the Tigers leading by five as they maintained a 48-43 advantage.

Getting even tighter in the second half, Princeton’s Drews proved to be a constant answer for the Tigers to keep the team ahead, as the junior was able to drop 30 points on the night with seven threes to pace the offense for the squad.

Staying within shouting distance, the Sabres were never quite able to maintain the lead as Princeton held on to the two-point victory.

Adding on top of Drews’ big night was a strong night for senior forward, Haydn Stay, who had a double-double with 19 points and 10 boards for the game.

Improving to 8-0, another tough test was up next for the fill-in coaching staff with a trip to Monticello.

Princeton 68, Monticello 65

Heading to the tough gym that is the Magic’s fieldhouse for the conference opener, familiar face, Dillon Naumann, who was a part of the Princeton coaching staff for the past seven years before taking over as head coach for Monticello, was itching to knock off his former team.

As the Magic came out fast, jumping to the 16-6 lead, the Tigers’ veteran lineup started to battle back.

Turning that early deficit into a 46-36 lead at half for Princeton, it appeared that the Tigers had seized control of the contest.

But Monticello did not lay down, playing much improved defense in the second half, holding the Tigers to just five points nearly 10 minutes into the second half as the game found itself knotted at 51-51 with 8:40 remaining.

Though fighting to regain the lead, Princeton failed to put fully away the Magic, clinging to a 68-65 lead with just seconds left on the clock.

With the chance to tie the game and force overtime, Magic’s Ryan Schyma attempt from half court to tie the game went astray as Princeton would escape with the victory.

“Our guys took on the moment and found a way to win. It wasn’t the prettiest but sometimes that what good teams do. They will their way to end up having a better score than the other team at the end of the game,” said Romportl on the hard-fought win over Monticello.

Again Drews and Stay led for the Tigers as the pair combined for 45 points and 16 rebounds in the victory.

Playing a big role in aiding the Tigers to the pair of wins was running the same system that Princeton is used to, despite having a different voice at the helm said Drews. “It was different not having Cloutier and Coach Nowak there but Romportl and Coach (Seth) Akason stuck to our system and prepared us well for those two games,” said Drews.

Holding on for the victory, Princeton still remains undefeated at 9-0.

Seeing Romportl step in to coach the team to two victories and keep the winning streak alive earned the substitute some high praise from Cloutier. “Coach Romportl did phenomenal job in the situation he was put in to. Unfortunately, with myself and our assistant coach out, we were three deep on the depth chart there coaching wise but we are lucky to have a really good staff that is very well trained,” said Cloutier, who expects to return to the helm this week.

Having Cloutier back manning the bench could not have come at a better time as a tough week is up for the Tigers, with a trip to take on 10-1 North Branch on Jan. 14 followed by a neutral site match up at Hamline University against Orono the next day.

Originally, the Tigers had a game against St. Francis on Jan. 11, but the contest has been rescheduled to Jan. 31.

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