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(Photo by Bill Allen/NJ SportAction)

GRAND SLAM: Stuart Country Day cross country coach Robert Abdullah, top row, and his charges celebrate after winning the state Prep B championship meet last Wednesday. The Tartans' win marked the program's fourth straight Prep B crown.

With Levitt Producing Sparkling Finale, Stuart Cross Country Wins 4th Prep B

By Bill Alden

Sasha Levitt felt uneasy as she rode on the van last Wednesday to the state Prep B championship meet, the last competition of her career on the Stuart Country Day cross country team.

"I was really nervous," recalled Levitt. "We had won the title three years in a row and we were expected to win. This was the first year that I was going to play a major part in the scoring."

Levitt's nerves, though, were calmed by Stuart head coach Robert Abdullah as he imparted some perspective during the ride to the Blair Academy course. "He told us that a cross country meet in high school was not going to change our lives," said Levitt. "He told us to just go out there and run hard and have fun."

Levitt followed that advice to the letter as she ended her career with a bang, placing fourth in the individual standings to help the Tartans take their fourth straight title. At the front of the Stuart pack was senior star Laura Brienza, who placed second as she covered the 3.1 mile course in a time of 21:32, with Nicole Huber taking third in 21:33.

In reflecting on her special finale, Levitt said she was taken aback by her fourth place finish. "On the third mile, I went all out and gave it all I had," said Levitt. who covered the course in 22:55. "I thought I was eighth or ninth but Laura and Nicole told me I was fourth. I'd never come in right after Nicole; it was great."

The performance was particularly satisfying for Levitt since she has been plagued with injuries in previous seasons. "I sprained my ankle last season and I wasn't the same after that," said Levitt. "This year nothing has happened; I've been praying that I would not get injured. I haven't changed my training; I've just been very lucky."

Stuart head coach Abdullah knew he was lucky to have Levitt on his team. "Sasha has been improving a lot this fall; her confidence has a lot to do with it," said Abdullah, who took over the coaching duties in late September when longtime Tartan coach Thomas Harrington took a job as an assistant coach with the Princeton women's track team. "She has been healthy; she's a good team person."

Coming into the Prep B meet, Abdullah was confident that the team would keep its title streak alive. "I had spoken to the girls the day before and I told them that I had looked at the numbers and that they were going to do well," said Abdullah.

"Every time we had run in the last three meets, the times had dropped not by seconds but by chunks. We were geared for the meet. Tom had built the base and I did the speed work."

Still, the Tartans had to fight through injury in order to earn the Prep B crown. "Laura had to sit out a week due to plain in her ankle joint," explained Abdullah.

"They said it was a bone bruise and the only way to clear it up was rest. Anais Vaillant had tendinitis in both of her ankles. She had tears in her eyes Wednesday as she came in 25th. She wasn't going to quit; she just kept running. It was never a question of not running."

The team's willingness to sacrifice has made the fall a memorable experience for Abdullah. "I'm used to track and field where you have a bigger team with sprinters, jumpers, and throwers," said Abdullah, who was a star hurdler at Glassboro State in the 1980s and has been an assistant coach for the both the Stuart and Princeton University track teams.

"In cross country the group is small. The girls have become family to me. The girls have done everything I've asked of them. They show such commitment so you have to be committed to them."

Levitt, for her part, credits Abdullah's approach with helping her realize her potential. "We were all worried when we lost Coach Harrington, we didn't know what to expect," said Levitt.

"Mr. Abdullah turned out to be great. He was always positive and he really helped us with technique. His speeches and spirituality really helped me to run the best I can. I think we all worked together and did the best we could. It was amazing."

And it paved the way for Levitt to end her career with an amazing performance.


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