Cougars junior prepared for sectional meet
By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
Shannon McCormick always figured she would play four years of high school softball, and then likely continue in college.
Running got in the way, however, and that’s something that the Montgomery High School junior never expected.
”My underclassmen years, especially freshman year, I didn’t look at cross country as a sport,” McCormick said. “I looked at it as something to get me in shape.”
McCormick had run in middle school for Tom Huelbig, who is the MHS varsity girls coach now. He had been fine with letting her balance softball and running, but when she got to high school she found that it was running that she missed in the spring.
”Freshman year, I came into the season and I could barely do four miles,” McCormick said. “I just told myself, this is all for softball. It’s a different mentality now. It’s extremely different. It’s hard to reflect back and realize that.”
Her evolution as a runner happened swiftly and completely. After playing high school softball as well as travel her freshman year, she quit both to run year-round last year. Now, she’s in her third year of cross country and will be doing her second year of spring track.
”This year, I came in knowing what to do,” McCormick said. “Last year was my first year running all three seasons. I had an idea what to do to stay consistent. I knew that I had to bump up my mileage, but had to be cautious so I didn’t get hurt. I felt like I took better advantage of my summer.”
It has paid off handsomely this fall. At her last race, the Skyland Conference Championships, McCormick ran 20:15 for 38th place in the ultra-competitive conference. The time was 1:08 faster than last year when she placed 75th overall in conferences.
”Shannon ran a 20:15, which is a minute less than last year,” Huelbig said. “They’re all setting PRs. The last three or four races, most of them are setting PRs. That’s the good thing. The bad thing is the other teams are getting better too.”
The Cougars will challenge themselves against the best of Central Jersey Group IV at Saturday’s sectional that had to be moved back one week and relocated from Thompson Park to Delsea High School due to Hurricane Sandy’s damage.
”Our coach sent a lot of links of the course to us,” McCormick said. “We’ve been watching the virtual tour of the course and going over the course map. We have a good idea of the course. It’s definitely one of the faster courses in the state. I’m hoping for a big PR. I’d like to say I’m going for Top 10, but I’ll just be happy with a PR.”
McCormick has been a consistent No. 2 for a young Cougars team that is led by Jillian Kelly. The senior standout has enjoyed a breakout season in which she has placed second at the Somerset County and Skyland Conference championship races.
”I think the goal for her is to try and go out and win it,” Huelbig said of the sectionals. “She has to be one of the favorites. The Hillsborough girl, Kelly Janokowicz, she’s been two or three seconds behind the last couple races. The first time we ran in the regular season, she won. They’ll push each other. Those are the two that could potentially win the race.”
McCormick, who ran 21:49 last year on the slower Thompson course, figures to have a good view of the race for the top spot if she runs the race she wants to.
”I’m excited to see how I do at sectionals,” McCormick said. “Hopefully I can keep Jill in sight.”
Even as McCormick has gotten faster, that’s been tough to do with Kelly picking up the pace over the last couple of weeks. They are leading the way for a pack behind them that includes three sophomores and a freshman, Jenna Kugel, and senior Alexandra Van Hook.
”We came into the year and we knew Jenna would be good and a couple sophomores were pretty good, and we were excited to see how everyone improved,” McCormick said. “We didn’t really have any expectations. Freshman year, we didn’t win any dual meets. This year, as a team, our mentality is as long as we win one. We won three or four. Last year, we won one or two last year. It’s been a gradual improvement.”
The same could be said of McCormick’s times. While she marvels at Kelly’s big time drop this season, she’s also picked up the pace considerably. She improved a little over 30 seconds from freshman to sophomore year, and her times this season have dropped even further this year.
”I dropped about a minute from last season,” McCormick said. “I’m content with them, but I’m a really competitive person, so I’m never really satisfied.
”I had more experience and knew what to do,” she explained. “Even now I’m still learning. I can pick things up and figure out what to do next time. I can’t believe I only have one more season of cross country.”
McCormick is looking to set up her final season with a strong race at sectionals. She’s coming off a promising conference meet, and even with Hurricane Sandy cutting into her training, she is confident in her abilities.
”(Skylands) was definitely encouraging,” McCormick said. “I think I went from 75 to 38th. It was motivating. I looked back at it, and I feel good about this season and I’m excited to run another race, maybe two.”
Huelbig is hoping that the week lost to Hurricane Sandy doesn’t affect his runners negatively Saturday. They have returned to their regular routine and looked good in the final days of preparation.
”The kids ran as much as they could last week,” Huelbig said. “We came back to practice and did a work out and we’re starting to taper down and feel good going into the section.”
For McCormick, there is plenty more to look forward to beyond cross country. Cross country is where she started her high school running career, but it’s still not her favorite.
”I definitely like track more,” she said. “It’s weird, but whenever we do a track workout, I enjoy it more than a distance run. It’s an odd feeling. I’m a person that likes to break things down. I know exactly what distance I’m at and where I need to be on a track.
”I feel like high mileage in the summer for cross country, I’ll do. I’m more of a person that would do four miles and do it fast. I’d rather do a tempo run. Cross country is still the subordinate. It’s still second best.”
Either way, it’s running and there’s nothing more that Shannon McCormick wants to do.