By Craig Sachson
The play call was a simple crossing route, and it was run to get the three yards needed for a first down. Blake Stenstrom, in his second game as the Princeton starting quarterback, dropped back and made the easy pass. Four Lehigh defenders were in position to make a stop, including two within a few yards of the intended receiver.
Normally, this is a short completion. The chains move, the drive continues. Nothing special here.
Andrei Iosivas isn’t a normal receiver. He hasn’t achieved normal milestones. He hasn’t posted normal statistics. And he certainly doesn’t have normal speed.
Yes, that pass went for a first down. It also went for 62 extra yards and six points. Lehigh wasn’t surprised Iosivas got the ball. They were in position. They were ready.
The lightly recruited receiver from Honolulu made sure they just didn’t matter.
• • •
Mihai and Evelyn Iosivas made sure their oldest son Andrei valued education at an early age. He went to the Punahou School in Hawaii, the same school once attended by President Barack Obama, and he dreamed of playing football at a top academic university. While the academics were great, the passing game opportunities there were less impressive.
He hoped the offers would roll in, but they never really came. Nobody knew who he was.
He went to the Stanford Camp, hoping to catch somebody’s eye. He did, but not the eye he might have expected. Current Princeton offensive coordinator Mike Willis worked the camp, and he suggested that Iosivas attend one of the Tiger camps as well.
Both sides committed quickly after that camp, though neither could have imagined just how successful the connection would become.
The results, at least for Iosivas, weren’t immediate. The tall, skinny kid from Hawaii walked into a locker room with NFL-bound Jesper Horsted and Steve Carlson, a tandem making the case to be the best 1-2 receiving punch at Princeton in decades. Iosivas didn’t sulk at the lack of playing time. He watched. He learned.
“Seeing the level they played at made me just want to keep working,” he remembers of the pair that led Princeton to a perfect season and 2018 Ivy League championship. “They were my inspiration. Every film session, I was studying them, looking at what they were doing.”
Their 2019 graduation opened the door for playing time, and a talented crop of receivers — Iosivas, Dylan Classi and Jacob Birmelin, to name a few — took advantage. Without the same high school experience as the others, and having played in only JV games as a freshman, Iosivas trailed his peers in receptions and yards. The team fell a game short of the Ivy League title, and nobody knew that a global pandemic was coming.
Iosivas could have gotten down on himself. Instead, he got to work.
• • •
The athleticism you’ll see on Powers Field during Saturday’s Ivy League finale has always been there for Iosivas. He has been a standout for the Princeton track and field team, where he has earned First-Team All-America honors and set the Ivy League record in the heptathlon, the multi-event competition in the winter sport.
He has won the Ivy League title in the heptathlon every time he has competed in it, including the 2020 season. That title came one month before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports.
One day before Hawaii went on lockdown, Andrei’s father bought workout equipment for his son to use for training. Day after day, Iosivas built his strength and honed his fundamentals. Footwork. Route running. Catching the ball.
Day after day. Workout after workout.
While it’s easy to credit Iosivas’ blazing speed for his success, those pandemic workouts set the foundation for these last two years of historic success. He came back to Princeton as a complete receiver. Nobody knew who he was three years earlier.
Everybody was about to figure it out.
• • •
Iosivas caught 41 passes for 703 yards and a team-high five touchdowns during Princeton’s 2021 Ivy championship season. He had team highs in receptions in both the five-overtime win over Harvard and the title-clinching win over Penn. He earned All-Ivy League honors, and would garner enough attention to get put on several early award and draft watchlists as he entered his senior season.
He was also voted captain in a class that included a large number of fifth-year seniors, guys who experienced the 2018 championship season as freshmen and wanted nothing more than to go out in similar fashion. This group stayed together through the heartbreak of 2019 and the pandemic, and they remained focused on each other and the goals ahead.
“We understood what it took to be that great,” Iosivas said. “If you have leaders who know what work needs to be put in, and you can trust each other, that breeds good culture. Everybody loves football here, and everybody loves this team. You can’t go wrong there, especially when you bring in great recruiting classes, and great players.”
Iosivas may not have been considered a key part of a great recruiting class, but there may not be a better player in the Ivy League in 2022. He leads the league in receptions (64), receiving yards (912), and touchdowns (six) this season. He has the chance to become the fourth different player in program history to record a 1,000-yard receiving season, and he could also become the sixth Princeton player with 2,000 career receiving yards (joining his teammate Classi, who joined that list last weekend … making this duo arguably the best in Princeton history).
Is he being noticed now? You could say so, and not just by every defensive player and coordinator within the league. On Nov. 8, Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy showed up at the end of Princeton’s practice to announce that Iosivas was invited to the Reese’s Senior Bowl, making him the third Princeton player ever (Hollie Donan, 1951 and Caraun Reid, 2014) to compete in that event.
He has been named to the 2022 FCS Walter Payton Award Watchlist (FCS Offensive Player of the Year), and he has been honored as the Senior Bowl Offensive Player of the Week and the East-West Shrine Bowl Outbreak Offensive Player of the Week … for two different games this season.
Iosivas was good when he arrived. He’ll leave as one of the best ever at Princeton.
“Andrei has been a tremendous player throughout his Princeton career,” head coach Bob Surace said. “I am fortunate to see all the work he does outside gameday. His preparation, effort, competitiveness at practice and leadership are all exceptional. I’m excited for one last opportunity to coach him this weekend.”
There is plenty of excitement surrounding Iosivas. You don’t get invited to the Senior Bowl if NFL coaches aren’t intrigued. But the future he concerns himself with right now is the one Surace highlighted. This weekend, Iosivas has a chance to make a bit more history. The individual numbers are nice, but he could leave the way he entered, as an Ivy League champion, and he could help Princeton win a repeat title for the first time in almost 60 years.
Senior Day can be an emotional one, and Iosivas will cherish the time with his family, which rented a nearby Airbnb this season so they wouldn’t miss a moment of their son’s final games. By kickoff, though, he and his classmates will try to finish a job they began five years earlier.
“Everyone has the same goals; everyone has the same mindset,” he said. “It’s the transition from boys to men, basically. Some guys get playing time as freshmen, but when it becomes your team, your responsibility, that’s where another level of bonding comes in. It’s like your baby. You want to take care of it, nurture it, create this culture.”
He has created and nurtured a career that will be recognized for decades in the record book. He will be the one remembered as the foundation builder, the culture setter, for younger players looking to win their own Ivy title. Maybe he’ll even be celebrated for what he does on Sundays.
That’s a story for another day. The one he’s writing right now, the one he’ll complete Saturday, has been a thriller. Don’t take your eyes off it.
Otherwise, like a defensive back taking a bad angle, you’ll miss something special.