By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor
The Princeton High boys cross country team approached last week’s state Group 4 meet with the same mentality they have had all season — survive and advance.
The hard-working Little Tigers put together another solid performance and were rewarded with their first trip to the Meet of Champions in 29 years.
“At the beginning of the season knew we would be better,” Princeton coach Mark Shelley said. “We also knew we were going up to Group 4 and we knew the competition was going to be tough. I’m not sure the Meet of Champions crossed our minds. We have been really focused on the process and get better every day and focusing on the team concept.
“There were so many races down the stretch where a different person has stepped up and ran a great race. These guys love each other and we were excited at both the sectional and state meets to beat some of the teams ranked ahead of us. And now we’re excited to run on Saturday at the Meet of Champions. We have a couple kids banged up but it would take an army to keep them out of the race.”
At last week’s Group 4 race at Holmdel Park, the Little Tigers were once again led by junior Alex Roth, who finished sixth individually in 16:11. Will Hare was the second runner for Princeton, finishing 28th overall in 16:51. The top five for the Little Tigers was rounded out by Alex Ackerman (59th), Jeremy Taylor (62nd) and Cy Watsky (70th). The performance overall helped Princeton finish fifth as a team in Group 4 and earn one of the team wild card slots at the MOC.
The Princeton boys will be joined at the MOC by several other Packet-area runners who qualified as individuals. West Windsor-Plainsboro South senior Tim Bason was third individually in Group 4, while Montgomery’s Ajay Sarath was seventh to earn spots in the MOC. On the girls side, Christina Rancan of WW-P South was eighth in the Group 4 race to qualify for the MOC, while Princeton’s Lou Mailhe and Montgomery’s Julia Hans earned wild card spots out of the Group 4 race.
The girls MOC race will begin at 11 a.m. at Holmdel Park, with the boys race to begin at 11:45 a.m.
For the Princeton boys, the historic performance that helped earn a spot in the MOC was something special.
“It’s been 29 years since Princeton High School cross country has been there,” said Hare, who was also the Little Tigers’ second finisher at the sectional meet a week earlier. “To make it this year is pretty cool. At the beginning of the year going from Group 3 to Group 4 we were all really nervous. We got ourselves together said it would be tough but decided this is what we wanted. That was goal.
“Before Saturday it seemed like a couple people would have a good race one week and then a couple the next. On Saturday we all had a real good race. Alex , Me, Alex, Cy and Jeremy, it was one of the first times we have put it all together in the same race.”
Despite running well enough to advance at the CJ 4 meet at Thompson Park a week before, Princeton knew it could run better. The Little Tigers did that at Holmdel.
“It was a weird race at sectionals,” Hare said. “It was hard to really plan for it. At the Group 4 race the field was fast and we showed we are one of the best teams in state. At the Meet of Champs we will be running against some of the best runners in the country. It is a great opportunity to compete against the best the state of New Jersey has to offer. It will be real exciting to proves ourselves once again.”
As exciting as the season has been for the Little Tigers, they have to have an eye on the future.
“We have one senior who ran Saturday,” Hare said. “We had three sophomore and a freshman and two juniors. I think we should be one of the top teams. We are right now and the best is yet to come for Princeton cross country.
“I felt like on Saturday it opened our eyes to when we put it together and run well, not only as individuals but as a team, we got a sense of what we are capable of doing. It will put even more drive into what we can be.”
Hare is a prime example of what hard work can do. He wasn’t in the top seven for the Little Tigers a year ago, but hard work heading into the season has made him a mainstay this year.
“Last year I didn’t run varsity at all,” Hare said. “Every race this year has been a first for me. So it has been kind of nerve wracking that every time you go to the line it is the biggest race of your life. It’s cool because I have been a part of one of the best teams in state.
“One of the things our coach likes to stress is the idea of a process and just keep on building and don’t let one negative result set you back to far. One bad race can’t knock off your whole season. So many times someone has had a bad race but because we stress the idea that the season is a process it’s not all or nothing.”
Shelley has three goals for the Little Tigers heading into the Meet of Champions and would be thrilled if the team met those goals.
“One goal is that Eli Wasserman is going to try to get under 17:15, which is our freshman record at Holmdel,” Shelley said. “Alex Roth would like to go under 16 minutes and finish in the top 10. And then with the team we would like to be 16:50 or better as a team average and finish in the top 10. I think all three are challenging but doable. The guys know my view on it. That is our goal.
“We were a solid 10th when you look at the merged numbers from last week. I think we have a shot at it if we run well. We just want to focus on us and what we do. I like the confidence the boys have right now.”
By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor