WEST WINDSOR: Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year

Vinci took leading role for Pirates

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   Tom Vinci tried out this week for a leading role for West Windsor-Plainsboro High South’s production of the musical “Grease.”
   The senior already played the lead for the Pirate boys cross country team in the fall.
   ”We waited for him to mature and he has in a big way,” said Pirates head coach Kurt Wayton. “I’d like to say I’m happy about it, I’m not surprised. I’m very satisfied that this young man has come as far as he has.”
   Vinci has been a contributor throughout his career, the sort of runner that always seemed to be the future front-runner. This year, he stepped up when he had the chance after coming off the first serious injury of his career, a stress fracture in his left tibia that held him out for six weeks in June.
   ”Before the summer, before I got the stress fracture, the goal I set was top 10 in the state, become the second fastest runner in school history and win Shore Coaches,” Vinci said. “I got one of those goals. I had a bad season sophomore year, I improved junior year and I was able to find myself and race to my capabilities senior year. I was satisfied.”
   Things did not start out start out well. He was sick and missed the Cherokee Challenge and then was 15th overall at the Shore Coaches Invitational, behind teammates Nikhil Pulimood and Karn Setya.
   ”I just didn’t get out well at Shore Coaches and I wasn’t able to stay focused,” Vinci said. “That was probably the lowest point. Last year, I had been second. I had hoped to be No. 1 this year, not saying anything against Nikhil and Karn. They’re great runners.”
   Vinci had a reassuring talk with Wayton and started to see the results come. He was the top finisher for the Pirates in every race after the Shore Coaches, and his times started to come. The week before the Mercer County Championships, Vinci covered the Washington Crossing Park course in 15:48. Days later, he won the county crown and helped the Pirates win an unprecedented fourth team title with a course-record 15:34. At the Central Jersey Group IV meet two weeks later, he ran 15:44 for second place overall to lead the Pirates to a fourth straight team title. At Holmdel Park the following week, his 16:03 clocking was fourth and helped WW-P South win its second straight Group IV team title, and his 15:52 finish at the Meet of Champions is the second fastest time ever run by a Pirates runner. He was 14th and WW-P South finished third in the state. He closed his season 17th at the Nike Cross Regional Championships in Wappinger Falls, N.Y.
   ”I always feel like it could have been better,” Vinci said. “I was pleased with it. I couldn’t have asked for more. To come from two miles a day in sixth grade to 14th in MOC is pretty nice, to say the least.”
   Tom Vinci is the Princeton Packet Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.
   ”It became very apparent by October that this kid was going to take his senior year by the neck and take control,” Wayton said. “He was determined and he was tough and he was passionate at the individual level and as a team leader. He’s our second best runner in Pirate history.
   ”I’m incredibly proud of him. I’m kind of enthusiastic about a number of other projects I have. They say you can’t teach toughness, but either the sport did, or Tom learned it, but he’s as tough as they come. Tom has proven that’s a big copout. This kid has become one of the toughest runners we’ve ever had.”
   That this season didn’t come easily to Vinci is also rewarding to him. It shows how he has developed and grown to be able to handle some adversity. He didn’t stop trying to improve when the season didn’t start out ideally.
   ”I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen coming off the injury,” he said. “I just knew I had to work as hard as I could. I knew I’d have to work hard to have the best season I could.”
   Things started to shape up after the Shore Coaches disappointment. While he had been running second and even third in many of the dual meets — even a dual meet in which the Pirates did race hard he was a “distant third” — he started to feel better and it showed in the second week of October.
   ”For the workouts, I had a little more confidence in myself,” Vinci said. “There were a couple workouts we did, really tough ones, that I was coming in first for them. The dual meet before counties, when ran 15:48, I had not planned to do that at all. That was a turning point. As soon as I got to 15:48, I thought I could do this. I’d returned to form.”
   Vinci did so with a new approach to races. He went out very hard from the start and just sustained it. It was a breakthrough race that opened his eyes.
   ”It was a dinky dual meet that he won by about 45 seconds,” Wayton said. “He almost broke the course record there. What I saw there was some fire and determination. It was the week before counties.
   ”It was just him proving to himself. It was like a dress rehearsal for the rest of the season. He said, I’m going to take it out fast, and put my talent and fitness on the line and leave everything else up for chance. Tom has found his niche. You’re laying it out on the line. Even if you don’t win, you’re pressing the pace.”
   The pace was impressive. His win at counties put him at the top of an impressive list, though only 10 seconds ahead of Pulimood, a junior who will have another year.
   ”Tom has the all-time Washington Crossing record,” Wayton said. “That broke Jim or Joe Rosa’s mark. I don’t care if that’s a dual meet course or what, that’s a nice record. Those kids are all-timers. That kid’s transformed himself. I couldn’t be prouder.”
   Said Vinci: “It was one of the most special experiences of my life. I just collapsed. I just couldn’t believe that happened. It was relief from all the things that happened over the summer. I wasn’t sure I’d have the best senior season I could. It was amazing.”
   Vinci rode the momentum of his county result into the state meets, where he continued to push toward the best finishes of his cross country career. He capped it with his race at the Meet of Champions by running the second fastest time in Pirates history, second only to 2007 graduate Brian Leung, who is a neighbor of Vinci’s.
   ”It’s really so awesome,” Vinci said. “I know I wasn’t as into cross country when Brian was running and breaking all the records. Then as I got into high school and he was running in college, I talked to him about it. He’s such a legend in all of New Jersey and he lived across from me. To get to run and be on the same record board as him, it’s really an awesome feeling.”
   Vinci stuck to his strategy of starting fast. He found that he felt better up front and was able to push himself closer too his limits. As his times dropped, his confidence increased.
   ”It happened over the entire course of the end of the season,” Vinci said. “As I started racing better, my confidence level increased and I started going on from there.”
   Vinci’s winter will be torn between the school musical and indoor track, but he is hoping he can ride the momentum from his favorite season, cross country, into the track season as he continues to gain confidence. Vinci will be running next year for the College of William and Mary.
   ”I think he’ll keep going in this direction,” Wayton said. “In track and in college, I don’t think he’ll reset the clock. He’ll be a big-time Division I runner. He’s proven though his own accomplishments, confidence comes with perseverance.
   ”I think he has decided to really take his own destiny by the hand and walk it up to the front of the line,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s the fact that he’s a senior at all. I think it was just a matter of him seeing himself through.”
   Vinci’s career lines up with the most successful four-year run in Pirate history. Through that run, he has enjoyed successes of his own, and he achieved the highest level in his final year.
   ”I feel really confident at this point that his senior year has been thus far a real coming of age year,” Wayton said. “You don’t plan it this way. It’s tough (with) all these different developmental stages. You always try to get them to reach these benchmarks. I’m happy that Tom took it upon himself to meet these benchmarks as a senior.
   ”The kid is so talented and he’s getting to be so tough, he could do anything. He could rewrite the record books in the track. He could be John Travolta’s part in “Grease.” He’s got as much potential as any kid I’ve coached. It’s up to him as a senior, an adult, a runner what he does. If he does, he’ll turn everyone on their heads. He’s that good.”