Higginson wins at Penn, joins very elite company

Forys in second, sets another record

BY TIM MORRIS Staff Writer

Staff Writer

If Colts Neck’s Ashley Higginson keeps this up, she won’t be the best-kept secret in New Jersey high school distance running.

Higginson joined a select group of legendary Garden State runners Thursday when she won the girls high school 3,000-meter run at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, Pa., in a swift 9:42.07, the sixth fastest in state history.

“Winning at Penn is different than anywhere else,” said the Cougar, who is just the fourth distance form New Jersey to win the race. “It has so much tradition.”

Higginson beat a field that included top runners from across the country by taking away her challengers’ will. She made a decisive move with 700 meters remaining. It left those waiting to sit and kick on the last lap, unable to respond.

By the time that Higginson put the hammer down, only two other runners were still in view, Crestwood Ohio’s Cassandra Schenck and Northside Virginia’s Catherine White.

“I felt as comfortable as I ever have in a race,” she remarked. “I went out slow in the first lap, 80, which is weird for me. I made up for that with a 74 on my next lap.”

Higginson stayed out of harm’s way in that first lap as runners in the 23-strong field jostled for position. Her quick second lap had her up with the leaders. A steady stream of punishing laps followed, and soon, the contenders were down to three – Higginson, Schenck and White.

“When it was down to three, I thought ‘I could win this,’ ” she said. “I went with 700 to go and got a gap right away.”

Higginson was able to maintain that gap the rest of the way and run into history, becoming the first Freehold District athletes to win a Penn Relays title. The time, a personal best by 20 seconds, took her by surprise. Teammate Briana Jackucewicz came through in ninth place, running 10:05.34.

Cougars coach Jim Schlentz said that Higginson’s greatest strength is her strength. She can grind opponents down by putting them beyond their pain threshold. Along with that, she’s a great competitor.

“She just really tough in a race,” he said. “She keeps her composure and has the ability to run through pain.”

Higginson may be the least celebrated distance runner with a pair of Meet of Champions titles to her credit. She may prefer it that way, but national wins like at Penn will raise her profile. The only other Garden State runners to win the 3K at Penn were all legends – Janet Smith, of J.P. Stevens, Jodie Bilotta, of North Hunterdon, and Monal Chokshi, of Bridgewater-Raritan. That’s the company that Higginson is now keeping.

Craig Forys looked to duplicate Higginson’s feat on Friday night and was denied by the surprising kick of Matt Centrowitz from Broadneck, Md. In the loss, Forys ran the third-fastest time in state history, 8:21.82, the seventh-fastest ever run at Penn and the fastest by a New Jersey runner in this race.

“I’ll take it,” he said. “I held in there. I’m happy with that. I thought I could take anything they threw at me on the last lap, I was wrong.”

A slow pace up front forced Forys to take the lead on the second lap.

“From the start no one was going for it and I didn’t want to get boxed in,” he said.

Help would soon arrive in the form of Jake Walker, of Lincoln, in Pennsylvania.

He would help out with the pace setting, as he and Forys started turning up the heat with negative splits. With two laps to go, Forys began his long drive to the finish. This is usually where he is able to break runners, but Walker and Centrowitz both went with him and tucked in behind him. At the bell lap, Centrowitz put on a big surge from the outside while Walker was taking the lead on the rail.

It was a three-way race to the line with Centrowitz taking over the lead. Forys, sitting in third still believed he could win the race on the backstretch. But Centrowitz, the son of the former American record holder for 5,000 meters, had a surprise for him.

“On the last lap I still felt like I had a chance,” he said. “I have a pretty good kick, but he had an extra gear that I couldn’t match.”

Centrowitz ran under 60 seconds for his final 400 and turned in an 8:20.09, the third-fastest time in Penn Relays history. Forys caught Walker in the final strides for second. Walker’s 8:21.94 in third place was the eighth fastest in Penn Relays history.

Forys, who didn’t get the Penn Relays crown he wanted, was pleased that fellow Cougar Higginson did.

“I’m happy for her, she flew on the last lap,” he said.

Howell’s Ben Edwards, Marlboro’s Kristen Batts and Manalapan’s Adam Hegel also qualified individually for the Carnival that is the Penn Relays. Edwards, finished 12th in the boys high school 400-meter intermediate hurdles. The Rebel posted a 55.75. Hegel was 15th in the boys long jump, traveling 20-11 1/4. Batts was 16th in the girls discus (106-6).

Friday was a big day for the Howell girls 4×800 relay team as it set a new Freehold Regional District standard with the 8:34.08 the Rebels ran in their Large School heat.

Kellee Hand, running on what will be her future home track beginning next year at Penn, started it off with a fast 2:17 leg. Lauren Wiemken followed with a 2:23, and Sarah Nelson a 2:22. Anchor Lauren Rome turned in a 2:26. The splits were all personal bests for Wiemken, Nelson and Rome while Hand matched her season’s best.

Hand, Wiemken, Nelson and Rome have lowered the Howell school record by 25 seconds this year. Freehold Township was 15th in the Distance Medley Relay turning in a 12:31.78.

Saturday, led by the multievent star Evan Stivala, the Colts Neck boys won the Lion Invitational held at Middletown North High School.

With Stivala winning three events, the Cougars scored 64 points and edged Matawan by six points. It was the second time in the week that the Cougars had topped the Huskies. On April 24, the Cougars scored big win in their dual meet.

Stivala, a junior, won the high jump (6-2), long jump (20-11) and the triple jump (41-11).

Colts Neck’s girls finished second to Southern, 103- 1/2-53. Meryl Wimberly won the 400 meters in 58.6, and Allison Linnell (5:19.5) led a one-two Cougar finish in the 1,600 as Kristen O’Dowd was runner-up (5:20.4). Jessica Paglinao matched her season’s best 5-6 in winning the high jump for the Cougars.