PLAINSBORO: Altan readies for favorite race

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   Manolya Altan started to make a name for herself the first time she ran in the Mercer County Championship.
   The West Windsor-Plainsboro High North senior is looking for a big race in her final girls cross country Mercer County appearance 1:45 p.m. today at Washington Crossing Park. The boys race is at 2:15 p.m.
   ”I’m really excited for counties,” Altan said. “I always give my best at counties. Counties is always my favorite race. This year is more excitement than pressure.”
   Altan broke onto the scene when she finished 12th as a freshman in 20:11. Each year since then, she has gotten faster and moved up in the standings. She was fourth as a sophomore in 19:38, and last year she came in third in 19:33.
   ”It being my last year, I want to have races where I’m proud of myself, whether it’s first or second,” Altan said. “But I want to know I did my best.”
   WW-P North has a smaller team this year, and they have changed the way they have trained this year. The Knights have tried to prepare themselves for the big meets by challenging their girls with practices with the boys teams and running for the first time in the large Manhattan Invitational two weeks ago.
   There, Ilyssa Stark was the Knights’ top finisher over the 4,000-meter course in 16:23, Altan ran 16:45, Yuzki Oey finished in 16:55, Sahana Natarajan ran 17:36 and Jessica Nguyen rounded out their top five in 18:04.
   ”I thought they ran one of the best team races we’ve run,” said Knight girls coach Monica Biro. “They were competitive and got out fast. When they think too much, they don’t put it out on the course.
   ”Cross country is a lot about instincts. It’s about getting out and racing. Manhattan taught them that. That’s been a big difference.”
   The long-term goal of their training is to do better at counties and advance beyond sectionals, which hasn’t happened in two years. The Knights are gearing up for these races, not the dual meets.
   ”We have to change their mindset about what is important here,” Biro said. “That was a little difficult. This Friday and two weeks from now will be a test about everything we’ve been doing.”
   Altan has adjusted to a more demanding training schedule. Her mileage is up, and the focus of the training has been to have her ready for the championship portion of the year.
   ”It’s definitely really exciting just to be training at a higher level,” Altan said. “I know all the work I’m doing is going to pay off. It’s so exciting that I’ve made a difference in my training. I hope it’ll make a difference in races. That’s why I’m excited, I know I’m prepared.
   ”I do feel I’m in the best shape,” she said. “Earlier this season, the times haven’t been as fast as the past years at this time in the season, but the workouts recently have shown, since I’ve just started tapering, I feel I’m ready for this. I do feel better about my form and speed. I feel ready.”
   The county race always seems to give her an extra gear. There is something about the race that brings out her best.
   ”I think just from my freshman year having such a good race and my first time placing so high, really realizing my potential, it was so exciting,” Altan said. “Every year I look forward to it. I remember freshman year, it was my best race. The environment is great. We have really good teams in the county. You can see everyone working for their team.”
   Altan will be working to get the lowest number she can for the Knights. It won’t be easy against a field that includes most of last year’s top 10, a year older and a year better.
   ”I remember my freshman year and sophomore year, it was all dominated by upperclassmen,” Altan said. “Last year was so many more underclassmen. Everyone has improved so much from last year. I think it makes it more exciting that there’s such good competition. Every county is getting better. It’s going to be a great race, I can tell.”
   Returning is last year’s winner Grace Dwyer of Nottingham. She was a runaway winner as a freshman last year.
   ”I think her strategy is to go out hard and drop everyone so there can’t be any competition,” Altan said. “I think there are going to be a few girls challenging that and keeping up with her. I definitely want to challenge her and see what happens.”
   Behind her, Altan hopes to see a strong effort from the Knights as they round into championship form.
   ”It’s been really different this year running with the guys and having a small team,” Altan said. “It took a lot of trusting. We had to trust in what we’re doing since it’s so different. I’ve seen everyone come such a long way. I can’t wait to see what they do Friday. It’s such a difference. I think we can do something special on Friday and I’m excited to see what happens.
   ”The problem with our team is, we don’t believe we can be the best team, especially since we have such a small number on the team. All the girls on the team care about it and have prepared so well. I just want to make sure they’re all confident and excited and ready to go race and do the best they can.”
   For Altan, and fellow seniors Ilyssa Stark and Melanie Kiebuzinski, it will be a final trip to the county championships. They would like to make it their best, though that sets the bar high for Altan.
   ”She’s so excited for this time of year,” Biro said. “We finally see Manolya’s smile. She’s so excited. She gets what the hard work and training was about.
   ”It’s a matter of willing to stay out fast with the front pack,” she added. “She knows she can do it. We know in her training she can do it. It’s more of her mental thing. The mental aspect, she finally gets that. There’s no reason she can’t stay up with that front group.”
   That should be enough to keep the Mercer County Championships as Manolya Altan’s favorite race.