Boys DMR, O’Connor star at Group 4 Relays

Dennis anchors thriling win over CBA

By: Rudy Brandl
   Brian Dennis has made most of his scholastic sports headlines as a cross country runner, but he added a major indoor track and field triumph to his resume in Saturday’s NJSIAA Group 4 Relay Championships at Jadwin Gym.
   The senior distance standout, anchoring Hillsborough High’s distance medley team, was in position to produce a major highlight for his school’s program. The Raiders were in contention to win a race that included nationally-ranked powerhouse Christian Brothers Academy.
   Dennis didn’t disappoint his teammates or his coach. He took the baton from Mike Bitten and ran a 4:25 anchor leg to outduel CBA star Chris Horel for a huge victory in 10:36.10, just 0.22 seconds in front.
   "It was awesome," Dennis said. "I definitely wasn’t expecting it, but my teammates put me in the right spot and I took over."
   Fredy Irizzary began the winning trek with a personal-best 3:14.4 on the 1,200-meter leg. Tyler Szwarc followed by matching his best time in the 400 with a 52.3 split. Bitten ran 2:03.6 for the 800 to keep his team in the hunt. Dennis did the rest.
   "I was trying to catch the Cherokee kid and let Horel catch me at the same time," Dennis explained. "I wanted him to set the pace. I waited until there was about a half-lap to go. I just took a deep breath and conserved my energy and I took him on the turn."
   Szwarc, still out of breath from his sizzling 400 leg, enjoyed watching his teammates bring home the victory.
   "I was just completely drained watching but knowing everyone else is giving it their all," Szwarc said. "Your heart is just waiting and watching at that point. As soon as Brian won, we just went crazy."
   The victory was sweet but didn’t come as a huge surprise for HHS head coach Rich Refi, who’s always confident in his team’s ability, especially the distance crew.
   "I kept telling them I thought we could give CBA a good run," Refi said. "I was looking forward to that race. Deep down, I thought we had a chance to beat them. That was the highlight of the meet. That was exciting. The guys rose to the challenge."
   "We’ve been waiting for a moment like this," Dennis said. "It’s my senior year and this is what we wanted to do."
   The HHS boys placed fifth in two other events to finish the meet with 14 points, good for eighth in the team standings. CBA won the Group 4 relay title with 34½ points, while Irvington (30) was second.
   Szwarc also participated on the shuttle hurdles relay with Dave Eilbacher, Dan Reiss and Dan Millemann. This quartet posted its best time of the season (32.04). Eilbacher (5-8) joined Brandon Lane (5-10) in the high jump and the Raider duo finished fifth (11-6).
   Hillsborough junior Taryn O’Connor produced a major highlight in the girls’ meet, leading all shot putters with a new personal-best and school-record throw of 41 feet even. O’Connor broke Jenizah Melendez’s indoor mark and now holds both the outdoor and indoor Raider records.
   "It felt the best," O’Connor said. "I was waiting for it for so long. I’ve been throwing it in practice but not doing it in the meets."
   O’Connor hasn’t used a toe board during most of her workouts on the turf, so she was a bit more cautious in competition because she didn’t want to foul. Saturday in Princeton, she went for it.
   "I was so afraid of fouling so I held myself back in meets," O’Connor said. "I just had to let it fly."
   Despite O’Connor’s heroics, the Raiders didn’t repeat as team shot put champs in Group 4. Ingrid Berrio, who’s capable of throwing in the high 30s, missed the meet because of a back injury. Ali John hit her best mark (30-6½) but it was only enough to propel the two-girl team to third place.
   "Ali did her personal-best and you can’t really ask for anything more," O’Connor said. "I’m happy with what we did."
   Hillsborough’s only other scoring in the girls’ meet came in the high jump, where Melanie Gingras and Lauren Watts each cleared 4-10 to help the team tie for sixth place. That fraction of a point left the HHS girls with 6½ points, good for 15th place in the team standings. Piscataway won the team crown with 32 points.
   Both HHS teams finished fourth last winter with 24 points, but the field was even stronger this season.
   "We ran well, but that’s just the way things went," Refi said. "Group 4 is tough."
   The Raider athletes will battle Group 4 foes again this coming weekend at the individual championship meet, where qualifiers will move on to the NJSIAA Meet of Champions. O’Connor and Dennis have the best chance to move on, but Refi wouldn’t be surprised to see more Raiders make the trip. Don’t count out guys like Irizzary and Szwarc, who are having great seasons.
   O’Connor had the longest throw of all Group 4 shot putters but had some company near the top. She’ll be pushed for individual honors Saturday afternoon.
   "I just want to do my best and at least stay consistent with 41 (feet)," O’Connor said. "My form still has its flaws. If I can perfect one of them, I can throw much farther."
   The State Group 4 Championships begin at 3 p.m., with scorers and wild card qualifiers moving on to the Meet of Champs, set for Feb. 12 back at Jadwin Gym.